27 December 2007

Empowering - Accepting - Developing Students' Futures

Guest Blog:

The Internet can be empowering in schools


The scene: a high school classroom. Students gaze into their laptops. They might be taking notes like good little boys and girls. Or they might be passing the time on MySpace, quietly playing a Web game while their teacher thinks she has their undivided attention.

It looks like a teacher's worst nightmare. But it's the future. If we're smart.

The best thing about the Internet is the power it gives. Power to have a voice in civic government, power to learn on our own terms, power to share our lives. But that power isn't allowed in the classroom. Not yet. And that's a mistake.

Schools all over the country lock their computers away in a lab or a library. That's the situation at Garfield High School, where the district's Web filter blocks access to sites like MySpace and YouTube and occasionally some blogs teachers want to use in class.

The filter saves everyone a lot of trouble and worry. Students are curious and schools are scared. Filters are the easiest way to stop young minds from wandering where they shouldn't -- whether it's a mindless online game, a profanity-filled blog or worse. Schools need to be careful. So they hold back. They stay safe.

That's the wrong way to go.

Giving the Internet a place in the classroom would cost teachers some control, but the perks are worth it and teens deserve it -- not just to make use of their skills in the classroom but to take make full use of the technologies available to them.

Consider the situation at the University of Washington's medical school, where laptops are required gear and no one walks around the class to see what students are doing on them. "We could be checking e-mail," said first-year student Kristina Rudd. "Many of us are."

But they do other things, too. The second an obscure term escapes the lecturer's lips, someone in the classroom will look it up in Wikipedia or medical journals, dig up a relevant article and send it to the class. Suddenly, the influence of the lecture no longer relies on the effectiveness of the lecturer.

That's empowerment.

And it can happen in high school.

At the private Lakeside School, 14-year-old Janelle Dy hands in almost all her work by e-mail. When she's allowed to use her laptop in class, she makes the most of it.

"When I took notes on paper, sometimes I'd have difficulty understanding what the teacher was talking about, due to vocabulary," she said. "But now I have a dictionary on my laptop I'm allowed to use at all times. Also I can get to other Web sites, like Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica."

Not everyone in her class is as dutiful. Some students find ways to distract themselves, and a few, making use of their tech savvy, bypass the school's Web filter and go where they shouldn't.

That will happen. But to base all students' technological access on the behavior of an irresponsible few is not only lazy, it denies them an opportunity to learn integrity.

Granted, many schools are not equipped for this. Besides the obvious financial barriers, too many teachers are unaware of all the ways technology can supplement their lessons and few schools have the technical prowess to keep Internet rebels in check.

But there's something else holding educators back: fear of losing control.

Clearly, teens have a fluency with the Internet most teachers can't match. Bring this technology to every desktop and teachers are put at a disadvantage. We can continue to play it safe, or we can take some risks and give teens some power. Who knows? They might surprise us.

And the nightmare scenario might be a dream come true.

P-I reporter Mónica Guzmán can be reached at 206-448-8381 or monicaguzman@seattlepi.com. (c) 2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

and, also from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Ban Wikipedia? No Way!

My heart just about stopped when I saw the headline on today's Seattle Times site: "School officials unite in banning Wikipedia."

Surely not!

I am a Wikipedia junkie--it's my starting point for everything from determining what direction the Deep Fork River flows in Oklahoma, to keeping track of Kid Nation TV show developments, to figuring out what's up with a trend in some cities with kids using bicycles without brakes. I have a close friend who's using Wikipedia to learn about the potential new owners of the corporation where she works. On the Save Seattle Schools blog, contributers reportedly consulted Wikipedia to learn more about McKinsey & Co., the outside consulting firm that Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson is using to help craft a strategic plan.

Is Wikipedia the final, definitive source of all information? No. But I don't agree with those crotchety librarians in the Times article who complain that, "we don't see it as an authoritative source," and subsequently block the site from students.

With today's technology, information flow has become much more fluid and immediate. Just because it can't be found in a bound book doesn't necessarily mean that it ain't so. Indeed, there's a tremendous amount of subjectivity that goes into what is printed as the "truth." Of course, just because someone posted a statement online doesn't necessarily mean that it is true, either.

It's a shame that the teachers and librarians quoted in the article didn't take advantage of the situation--finding inaccurate information on Wikipedia--by having their students revise the Wikipedia site with their own research, or engage in broader discussions about how authority and truth will be staked out in new media (a battle that's raging right now between traditional journalists and bloggers).

Do you or your kids use Wikipedia? Do you think it has a place in schools?

Posted by Denise Gonzalez-Walker at November 26, 2007 5:45 p.m. (c) 2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

11 December 2007

Not fearing the future...

"Children, go where I send thee..." the Rev. Jennifer Browne of Grand Rapids' (Michigan) First United Methodist Church brings this hymn together with my column on mobile phones in schools (see below) to create a powerful sermon. I don't often ask you to join me in church, but if you like, you can watch the whole Sunday service from the ninth of December, 2007 here - the topic appears about 25 minutes in...


not You-Tube - you must click on the image or the link
and the church's site will load and the video will play

No comments yet from any of the school "leaders" who ban these devices without understanding the damage they are doing. But then "Education Mayor" Bloomberg (of NYC) has never responded to any of my earlier posts.

- Ira Socol

08 December 2007

Don’t Hang Up on Your Students’ Futures

In today's (8 December 2007) Grand Rapids (MI) Press I have an opinion piece protesting mobile phone bans in local schools. Well, not protesting, simply suggesting that if we cannot figure out how to teach with a tool this powerful we are surely failing as educators. Of course, in this topsy-turvy communications world, it is the print media which required a 1,300 word story be cut to 750, while here, on-line (or by feed to your mobile phone) you can read the whole thing...

In a classroom with sixty future teachers I tried an experiment. “Everybody have their mobile phones?” I asked. They looked surprised. “OK,” I told these Michigan State University students, “you have fifteen minutes to receive a text message. The message must say (1) where the person is, (2) what they ate for lunch today, and (c) what decade were they born in.” Then I offered extra credit if the text response came from outside the US, and more extra-credit if it was both from outside the country and in a language other than English. Instantly the room was filled fingers flying across tiny keypads, and within fifteen minutes we had far more responses than students. “What could we do with this information?” I asked. “Could we graph it? Map it? Analyze it for information on diet? Work on translating the French, German, Spanish, and Urdu messages we received?”

This wasn’t an original idea of mine. A friend had emailed me an online video on best practices in education and I had grabbed this assignment from that. But it was a powerful lesson. Just the week before another instructor in education at MSU had been quoted in a New York Times article complaining about cell phones in the classroom and I had forcefully argued that this was the wrong tack to take. Mobile phones are potentially the most powerful communication and information device ever created, I had suggested, and they are already everywhere. How blind, I asked, must we as educators be if we cannot use such a remarkable tool? If we cannot teach with such a remarkable tool? If we cannot help students see how this tool will impact their lives in amazing ways as they go forward? So I went into the class wanting to show future teachers one more way to embrace the technology of the 21st Century rather than fearing it.

My ideas about mobile phones in education are not original either. Around the world educators are utilizing this technology. Phones deliver content via text, they allow intra-classroom communication (students using Bluetooth to text answers to their teachers), they provide sophisticated handheld calculators, they take photos which document experiments, they act as digital voice recorders, they play podcasts of pre-recorded lessons, they support second language acquisition, they support and encourage writing, and where the phones connect to the internet, they give students handheld access to the world’s greatest library. Researchers and teachers in Ireland, Scotland, England, France, Israel, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Singapore, South Africa, Japan, Australia, Korea, New Zealand, Kenya and dozens of other nations are developing and supporting “mobile learning” initiatives. In the United Kingdom the government just supported the publication of a remarkable book (available as a pdf download) from the Institute of Education at the University of London, Mobile Learning – towards a research agenda, which looks at the many cognitive interactive effects of this new educational context. TeachersTV in the UK – an online training tool, produced a half-hour video this fall on the power of mobile phones in the classroom.

Having excited my class with the phone lesson, and having met with them again to investigate all the ways that new technologies and electronic devices can support diverse learners – including the students they will mostly work with, those with learning, attention, and behavioral “disabilities,” I came home on Tuesday night, watched House, and then the local news. And on the local news I heard a top story about East Grand Rapids Schools blocking cell phone use and prohibiting iPod use. The story went on to say how this new policy was similar to those in Holland and other West Michigan cities, but less restrictive than the Grand Rapids Public Schools which, if the story was correct, prohibited all student electronic devices. Why? I asked myself, why, in a state so desperate to prepare our children for a new global economy, would we be so reluctant to actually begin to do that?

Educational researcher Alan November called American schools, “reality free zones” in the June 2007 issue of Technology and Learning magazine. “If we could get past our fear of the unknown and embrace the very tools we are blocking (which are also essential tools for the global economy),” he said, “then we could build much more motivating and rigorous learning environments. We also have an opportunity to teach the ethics and the social responsibility that accompany the use of such powerful tools.” He went on to discuss how today’s students have “information and communication containers” different than those of past generations – mobile phones, iPods, blogs, computers, instant messaging, video games. These technologies are certainly different than the 16th through 19th Century technologies comfortable for those who run the schools in West Michigan (pens, paper, printed books, notebooks, chalkboards), but they are no less valid, just as those old technologies are no less fraught with potential problems.

“Yes,” I have told teachers, phones in school can cause problems. Then I hold up my right hand, still scarred from where a friend stabbed me with a pencil in fifth grade. “The school, for some reason,” I say, “did not choose to ban pencils because of my injury.” I could point out that the school did not ban pencils (or paper either) when students were caught using them to write notes to friends, or to cheat, or to graffiti the boys’ room walls. Instead, the schools kept those technologies in place in the classroom, and taught both with them and the appropriate use of them.

For today’s students, who will graduate into a world dominated by digital technology and instant communication, the mobile phone (along with November’s other “containers”) will be at least as essential as all the technologies those who make school policy learned “back then” – pens and pencils, books and paper, card catalogs and library organization, typewriters and the old-style telephone. Right now students who are not experienced with their iPods will be at a disadvantage at many of our best universities (Duke and Stanford for example) and will likely be behind in language classes everywhere. Students who cannot search information quickly and effectively online will be unable to do college-level research or function at all in graduate school, or – and this is increasingly true throughout the economy – hold most jobs. Students who cannot communicate well with their employers by email and text-message will be in trouble in many ways. Yet with all that, our K-12 schools resist, using technology in the most limited ways – restricting the function to that of antique forms – the computer becomes little more than a typewriter or – with PowerPoint – a filmstrip projector.

The lesson I gave my students in instant text-message research is just one of many I try to provide. I encourage laptops in the classroom, and ask students to look things up for me, to check on the things I or other students say, and to communicate the results quickly to their classmates via email. I ask them to keep their mobile phones on their desks – that way – if they’ve forgotten to silence them and they do ring, we are all not listening while everyone searches their backpacks. I talk about the etiquette of taking important calls. I strongly encourage email conversation and debate. I expect use of Google, Google Scholar, Wiktionary, Wikipedia and talk about the best ways to use those essential tools. In the classrooms so equipped I use the Interactive White Boards (“SmartBoards”) not with PowerPoint but with on-line resources. I want these future teachers to know that they cannot fear these technologies in their classrooms, because their students must learn to use them.

New technologies scare and confuse people raised in the past. They scare and confuse schools. I recently found a series of articles from an 1842 educational journal explaining to teachers how to use the newest technology – the chalkboard – and reassuring them that “this new system” would not “replace books.” 2,500 years ago Plato feared literacy would destroy students' memorization skills and the quality of spoken language. So the fears we see around computers and mobile phones are simply part of a long pattern. But we cannot afford to simply train our students to be “just like us.” We must help them to navigate the world that is their future, and we cannot do that if we keep the technologies which will define that future out of our schools.

- Ira Socol

The essential iPod for college (The New York Times)
tshirtia - books for your mobile phone
Books in My Phone
Mobile Books
Japan: books written on, and delivered via, mobile phone.
Academic Papers
SMS in the Classroom - "Pls Turn Ur Mobile On" (Ireland
- Open Access)
SMS in a Literature Course (Germany)

SMS messaging in microeconomics experiments (Australia - Open Access)
Testing using SMS messaging (New Zealand)
Cell Phones in the L2 Classroom (Korea)
Instantaneous Feedback in the Interactive Classroom (Singapore - Open Access)

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com.

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

19 November 2007

Where is the future?

Kansas State University's Digital Ethnography Project offers an array of thought-provoking videos, blogs, and more. If you have not been watching, you might learn exactly how different the world your students will graduate into is from the world you are teaching them to be prepared for.

- Ira Socol

17 November 2007

What part of this world do you want to leave your students out of?

While still fighting his own bizarre little war against the mobile phone in school, New York's "Education Mayor" ("scare quotes" added) Michael Bloomberg nevertheless wants to give mobile phones to students so they can be used to encourage education. Certainly a bizarre moment even for an American politician. "...focus group research showed that cellphones were the primary means of communication for many teenagers, and that reaching them through a concerted campaign of text messages or through the Internet was far more likely to be effective...But Mr. Bloomberg...made it clear that the phones would not be allowed in schools," stated the article in the relentlessly anti-technology New York Times.

But making fun of these two powerful New York institutions can only get us so far. I can laugh at them, or I can watch Sergei Brinn and company (the company is Google) introduce the future.

Watching this, I find myself forced to ask: Exactly how bad an educator must you be if you...
(1) Do not want your students to have this technology?
(2) Cannot figure out how to use the unbelievable information and communications capability of this device educationally?
(3) Do not appreciate that one more legendary drop out from an American university is using a technology all your training dismisses (You Tube) to explain how the future will be delivered via another technology all your training dismisses (the mobile phone)?

What part of this world, I want to ask all the technology resistant educators out there, do you want your students left out of?

Enough asked...

But I'll close with a lecture on possibility, and risk, and living life well... the celebrated Randy Pausch "Last Lecture" at Carnegie-Mellon University... because it is important, even though it will take up well more than an hour of your time.

- Ira Socol

07 November 2007

Fight the Future (Fight the Present)

About once a season The New York Times launches an attack on technology in education. That's expected. We'll open the paper and find one more reporter reporting that his or her old friends are constantly bothered by young people in the classroom, especially by young people who are presumptuous enough to carry with them the most common information and communication devices in the world today - computers and mobile phones.

So today's article - New Class(room) War: Teacher vs. Technology - by "old" Columbia University journalism prof Samuel G. Freedman could not rate as a surprise. As is usual in these pieces, the old stories about pornography web sites and the old complaints that "students want to be entertained" (in this case coming from another old journalism prof - Michael Bugeja of Iowa State University) are rehashed, "heroic" stands of faculty against the demon technology are celebrated (in this case Roanoke College's Dr. Ali Nazemi), and the fondest wish for the old days is expressed - oh, education before computers and telephones, aeroplanes and those new-fangled movies. But, in the midst of this nonsense I was forced to come face-to-face with my own institution:

"Scott Carlin, an instructor of teacher interns at Michigan State University, advises his charges to forbid personal use of tech devices in the classroom. Of course he occasionally has to pause in his own lesson to make one of his graduate students stop scrolling through text messages.

'"If the students actually found some creative way to use a cellphone or a BlackBerry in a class demonstration, I’d be all for that," Mr. Carlin said in a recent interview, recalling his own years as a middle school and high school teacher. "Or if they could demonstrate how a chat room or
AOL instant messenger would help them present a project. But what I found in most cases is that it was just a fancy new way of passing notes."'

Here's what's frightening - Mr. Carlin is training new teacher interns - soon to be real teachers - and Mr. Carlin has no idea of how to help these new teachers use the ubiquitous technology of the present in their classrooms. This is frightening because it helps to explain why new teachers in the United States are rarely more "tech competent" in their classrooms than people who entered the profession thirty years ago. It is disappointing because if Mr. Carlin had simply entered into one of the many seminars and events held in his very own College of Education building, he might already be a very different kind of educator, and those who he is currently teaching might become different kind of educators.

The essential conservatism of American Education is a very powerful thing. In my years in higher education especially I have never seen any actual progressive bias. Oh sure, profs mouth support of socialism and equality, but that is all theory. Education in the United States is all about social reproduction - the intent is to make students as much like the teachers as possible - and this is carried out most aggressively through instructor behavior. In order to succeed students must learn to mimic the learning strategies which, and succeed in the learning environments that make their teachers comfortable. "I learned by reading big books and listening to boring lectures, so you must too."

The very idea that contemporary or future students might embrace other choices seems threatening not just to the pedagogy of instructors, but to their very understanding of the world - yet this seems odd to me. What we are really dealing with is a simple choice of what author Alan November calls "learning containers." In an article in Tech Learning this past summer he described his son's learning containers this way, "Dan has five basic tools, or digital containers, for managing his content, communicating with the world, and accessing his entertainment: blogs, his iPod, Instant Messenger, YouTube, and video games. Of course he also has a cell phone, which he often sneaks into school to text message me about how debate went that day. Otherwise, he has no access in school to the tools he loves to use. In fact, he has been taught that they have nothing to do with learning. At home he picks his applications and easily moves from one to another. He is self-taught, self-directed, and highly motivated. He is locally and globally connected."

Why can't students pick the "containers" most effective for them? Why can't teachers (be it Mr. Carlin, Dr. Freedman, or Dr. Bugeja) teach "container etiquette" for 21st Century technologies the way they do for 5th Century BC and 15th Century AD technologies? Why shouldn't we demand that anyone teaching in 2007 be able to successfully teach using the dominant technologies of the age?

Well, obviously... Mr. Carlin, Dr. Freedman, and Dr. Bugeja are all locked in the past - and whatever their personal merits they will likely be failed teachers - unable to truly prepare their students for the world into which they will graduate. Imagine a maths instructor who insisted on students using only sliderules - An English instructor insisting that students write with quill pens they had made themselves - A history instructor insisting on only memorization and verbal response (the old ancient Greek way) - we'd all say, "There are better ways! We've invented graphing calculators - factory-made pens - literacy!" Because, yes, if we are intelligent humans, and good teachers, we embrace the technology of the present and we anticipate the technology of the future. We use the tools which we, as humans, have created in order to learn better and do more.

We simply cannot accept anything less. We need to bring all these technologies into the schools and we must learn to use them effectively, to offer choices and opportunities - and thus, to offer true educational success to those not exactly like today's educators (for a great start, please download - free - Dr. Norbert Pachler's great research agenda on Mobile Learning - from the Institute of Education/University of London - pdf format).

Mr. Carlin is working in a state with the highest unemployment rate in the US, a state struggling to replace old-line manufacturing jobs with good jobs in the knowledge economy. Also a state with a 26% university completion rate, with an ugly high school drop out rate, with persistently troubling scores for minorities on standardized tests. Dr. Freedman is writing for a newspaper that has never quite figured out how to use the internet well and profitably. He teaches at a university far behind in offering its educational services to wider populations through technology. Perhaps the elitism behind their attitudes is not serving the cause of their employers well. Perhaps they should open their doors, head outside, and meet the world that is coming.

- Ira Socol

for a prior exchange between
The Times and me on this issue, click here.

Dr. Freedman writes back to me simply saying "
We'll just have to agree to disagree here." - I guess he is unable or unwilling to actually debate in the face of a challenge - or is it that I sent an email rather than a telegram?

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com.

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

01 November 2007

Comprehending What New Technology Does

(Originally written as a response to a display of "favorite educational web sites" by graduate students - many of which were interesting, but most of which also seemed to simply reproduce what schools have 'always' done - the way PowerPoint simply mimics the old 'Film-Strip" projectors of the 1960s. I received little response from that audience to this challenge, so I thought I would offer it here...)

In January 1983 Apple Computer released the “Lisa” – the very first commercially available computer to use a “GUI” or mouse and to operate via on-screen “windows.” The Lisa allowed users to draw with the computer. It featured calculators that looked like calculators with buttons which could be pushed and word-processing via “LisaWrite Paper” or “LisaPad Paper,” which looked – for the first time – as if the user was typing on a sheet of paper.

For the first time a computer started without a “command prompt.” For the first time people were introduced to concepts such as “mouse,” “click,” “folder,” “drop-down menu,” “desktop,” and “multiple applications.” The Lisa could even produce graphical output, pushing the dot-matrix printers of the era beyond their limits.

The Lisa bombed in the marketplace. It was not just the cost, about 40% higher than the price of an IBM-PC of the time (or up to over $20,000 in 2007 money), but a simpler problem – the Lisa did things that no one had yet imagined doing. It shifted functions humans then did with pencils and rapidographs, early calculators and IBM Selectrics, Wite-Out and file folders, to the computer.[1] But in doing so, it changed how every one of these functions were understood, and it changed the nature of expertise in a hundred fields of human endeavor.

It is important to remember that personal computers were not new in 1984. Offices and even homes were filled with IBM PCs and Apple IIs. But these computers were simple improvements on already existing office machines. They might mimic mainframe systems in data management, or they might mimic the standard secretarial typewriter, or they might be the fastest adding machine around, but they did nothing really new, nor did they simplify anything. Only the most advanced, the most senior personnel, were granted the complex training required to move up to work on these machines. Essentially, they reinforced office and even educational hierarchies.

As I said, the Lisa failed. The very ideas were mocked. Why would someone want 16, or even four, applications open at the same time? (“Who could pay attention to that?”) Why would you want to type on this complicated computer and make changes with mouse clicks? (“It will encourage laziness, people will write before they think.”) And how would you use that “mouse-thing” anyway? You would have to take your right-hand away from the keyboard, which would slow down typing.

It was such a failure that when Apple introduced the Macintosh 18 months later a number of Lisa’s features had been pulled. Multi-tasking was gone, and keyboard “shortcuts” had been introduced to reduce mouse reliance.

This lack of ability to see change in function within future technology remains an issue a quarter century later. When technology is used in most American schools today, it only very occasionally looks toward new forms of cognition and learning – social networking implications for example, language learning sites which break through physical isolation. Far more often it simply reproduces what educators already believe –that IBM PC thought structure – the same, just a bit “better” and faster. So we see classroom quizzes, but better, and video libraries, but easier, and typing, but more efficient. In other words technology used to maintain power structures and cognitive processes as they are.

I would argue that when we use technology in these conservative forms we actually move our students backwards. Not only do we not teach them to find their way in the future, we teach them that the technological world of today and tomorrow will not help them. If I still fail on digital quizzes I am without hope. If all this technology can not help me read and process, I may as well give up right now.

“Lets imagine a country which we will call Foobar, where reading and writing don’t exist, but which despite this has managed to develop a sophisticated culture of science, the arts, philosophy and commerce. A bit of a stretch I know, but not entirely inconceivable. All cultural transmission in such a society would take place by oral means and a good memory would undoubtedly be an invaluable asset. Education would probably consist of much rote learning and place a high value on memory work. Now imagine what the impact on such a society and in particular on its education system might be when someone finally invents the pen. Well, undoubtedly a politician somewhere will pound a table and insist that we need a ‘pen in every classroom’. An education administrator will say ‘no, we should have a pen room where children can go once a week to learn how to use these pens’. So, eventually schools will all have pens and teachers will have to figure out how to make use of them. The Foobarian Department of Education will ponder the issue. They will eventually write a ‘pen’ curriculum and issue guidelines on how the ‘pen’ may be used to support memory work and rote-learning in schools.”[2] Ken Jennings of Trinity College wrote this in 2004, pointing out that the connection to computers “is obvious.” He goes on to say, “What doesn’t seem to make much sense is to try to incorporate computers into the education system in a way which does not allow for some change in either the ‘what we do’ or the ‘how we do it’.”

This, to me, is the challenge. If we do not understand that technology – every technology – has a fundamental impact on cognition and learning, we are missing the point entirely. Gutenberg’s 15th Century technology changed how people learned and how they saw the world. So did the Edison/Lumiere film technology of the 19th Century: once British audiences saw film of the Boer War they were never the same again – never thought in the same patterns, and never accepted learning in quite the same way. Marconi altered this again, providing a radical new idea of immediacy and authenticity. And this has proceeded with every technological leap.

Educators in particular have always struggled with this. In the late 19th Century they worried that students would not be able to distinguish between “literature” and the stuff of “dime novels” (original paperback popular fiction). In the early 20th Century they were sure their youngsters could not distinguish between reality and cinema. Then that radio was wasting their time and destroying their imagination. In 1984 multi-tasking on a computer was cognitive overload and editing on a computer made one lazy. And we hear all these threats, and more, today.

The goal, this, in my mind, is not in pandering to these future fears, but in learning to force schools and educators into a place where they stop restricting the potential of their students because of their own discomfort with the world as it exists.

- Ira Socol

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4BlmsN4q2I&mode=related&search=

[2] Jennings, K. Music Technology in Irish Second Level Education - A Foobarian Approach. Journal of Music in Ireland. (pages in press) July/August 2004

17 October 2007

The Universally Designed Workplace

I will be speaking at the Dearborn Disability Awareness Day event this year - Pathways to Possibilities is being held on Thursday, 18 October 2007, at the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center in Dearborn, Michigan from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. It is free, and there will be speakers, workshops, demonstrations, and displays. Below is an introduction to what I will be talking about at Noon.

Traveling in Ireland recently my companion and I were on our fourth city, and perhaps our fifth visit to a "Tesco," (the largest supermarket/superstore chain in the United Kingdom and Ireland) when she looked at me and said, "every cashier sits down in this country." I might have said something like, "of course," but then I realized what she was saying. In the US many, many people are kept out of cashiering jobs because they cannot stand on their feet all day long. The Irish cashiers almost universally had drinks and even snacks with them. In the US, we both knew, if an employee needed to have that for reasons of comfort or medical condition, it would often be a fight to get the accommodation.

So unlike most US retailers, Tesco, a stunningly successful business now beginning to invade the United States, has eliminated the need for numerous of the accommodations American employers need to make to meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements. In fact, they have eliminated the need for many of their employees to label themselves as "disabled." And they have done it through a simple concept called "Universal Design."

We all know "universal design". We can wheel our baby's strollers and our kids can ride their bicycles easily from sidewalk to street because curb cuts have made that possible, while allowing wheelchair users to make the same trip. When we sit down at our computer our spell-check makes up for the fact that most of us have not committed the dictionary to memory. And we are all thankful for that early bit of "UD" the elevator, which made high office floors accessible to wheelchair users, the elderly, the temporarily hurt, or if we just do not want to walk up ten flights of stairs. The car is another bit of universal design. Some of us in 1850 could have walked twenty miles to work each morning, but many of us could not, and many more would not want to. For some the car thus became a convenience, for others a life solution – allowing them to live more complete lives.

Adding adjustable stools to cashiers' positions is one way that American business could dramatically change the way we define ability and disability in the United States, and it would enable millions more people to see good jobs, but it is just one of hundreds of free or inexpensive ways that Universal Design can be embraced.

The keyboard is another obvious roadblock for many. Companies, and especially governments, continue to give pre-employment keyboarding tests for many jobs, and continue to use the antiquated keyboard design that comes standard in the computer box. These systems not only define many as "disabled" but go further, literally causing disabilities through horrid design. But there are hundreds of keyboard types to fit every hand shape, size, and capability, and dozens of alternative ways to get words and data into a computer. Big Keys and FrogPads, Left-Handed and "naturally" shaped keyboards. Speech Recognition and on-screen keyboards, even the keypad on a mobile phone can become an entry device. How the data reaches the computer does not matter, the best way is whatever way is best for the employee. Changing this attitude will make hundreds of millions comfortable, and less susceptible to carpal tunnel syndrome. For tens of millions it will make satisfying and rewarding work possible.

So much of our workplaces are standardized when they should not be. How often do corporate rules prevent the hiring of the best employees? The answer is very often. We know this because "the best" gravitate to "the best companies." There is a reason the corporations which cannot survive without hiring the best minds go out of their way to allow individualization, of offices, of the work schedule, of computers, of methods of production. But even if a firm is not a Google with flex work days and door-to-door mass transit and pets in the offices, or an IBM with the software "brains" most often working from home, businesses can make choices that make the many more comfortable, and the "disabled" part of the mainstream of life.

Sit or stand? How about leaving that to the worker. Type of keyboard? Buy a few different as examples and let employees choose. The same for office chairs, for computer mice, for desk heights (yes, you can adjust them, but how often do you?). Always allow employees to bring their own lights to their own offices. Encourage computer individualization – why would a company care if an employee "reads" or "listens" to their emails, or gets your most recent memo via paper or iPod? The bottom line is to get the job done, and done so that the customer is served. The methods of internal information exchange, or whether the office seating is from Steelcase or is an electric wheelchair, make no difference. The rule should always be flexibility unless it makes business impossible.

Universal Design is not really a new idea. If we are old enough we saw it in place consistently. The cashier at a local hardware store had the use of just one arm, an injured war veteran. When he worked a board was clamped to the counter to his left, giving him an extra surface from which he could sweep the purchased items into the bags. At the local beverage company a production worker whose leg had been injured sat on a specially constructed high stool and continued his job. The man at the counter at the neighborhood laundry was deaf, a large stack of scrap paper and some pencils sat right there, ready to enable communication. The short grocery clerk used a long-handled "grabber" to pull items down from the upper shelves of crowded urban stores. Even the President of the United States – back in the early 1960s – needed a special rocking chair in his office to ease the back pain from his war injury and allow himself to continue working.

But over the years management experts and efficiency experts have pushed us to pretend that we are all the same, that we should all work in identical environments, that we should all use the same tools, methods, and schedules.

That is not just silly, it is anti-human. It makes the days miserable for most, and impossible for too many. In an economy where we must use all the talents we have if we hope to be competitive, we must toss out this notion that human workers are exactly interchangeable parts. We must embrace Universal Design, and the full diversity of our potential workforce.

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com.

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

02 October 2007

What Not to Do

Sometimes, it is most important not to do make students do things, especially when the norms of instruction work against the way many kids learn...

For example - countless hours are wasted in maths classes everywhere trying to get kids to remember formulas - that "stuff at the front of the book." This is a massive waste of cognitive effort and educational time. Students need to know how to find the appropriate formula and how to recognize that this is the right formula to use. But in the three millennia since literacy was invented, the need for this kind of nonsensical memorization has vanished. This is, obviously, particularly important for students who often fall into the dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, etc - because this group often struggles with the adaptation of short term memory to long-term memory and with fully accurate symbol recall (for many of these students a formula would have to be recalled as a precise picture for it to be of any use).

So, hand out a notebook insert listing all the formulas along with keywords to suggest use. You will then be using your educational time - and your students' cognitive effort - on real world tasks, the assembly of knowledge and the effective ability to work with data.

Likewise, the recall of dates remains the most worthless of academic pursuits. Again, in history classrooms worldwide so much time and effort is tossed away on this nonsense that it is no surprise that students know so little actual history. A former professor of mine used to say, "I don't care at all about dates, but I want you to understand which events preceeded which other events." In other words, the dates of the Austrian annexation of Bosnia, Franz-Ferdinand's assassination, and the start of The Great War are trivia, easily looked up via Google or Wikipedia. But it is vital to know that these events occured in sequence, or they don't make sense. If you waste your students' time forcing memorization of dates a student might get 2/3 of "that question" correct - answering (a - Austrian Annexation): 1919 - (b - Franz Ferdinand's assassination): June 1914 - (c - start of The Great War): August 1914. This would be "passing" in most schools and yet it would be completely wrong - a fundamental misunderstanding of history caused by focusing on numbers which have no value.

This kind of cognitive waste goes on in almost every subject. It goes along with a devotion to questions which can be answered on multiple-choice or short-answer tests. It goes along with panic about cheating. It goes along with the fallacy of "standards-based" education. And it not only severly damages students with certain cognitive, learning, or attentional issues - it limits the possibilities for learning by all students.

- Ira Socol

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com.

US $16.00 direct via lulu.com

Look Inside This Book

20 September 2007

ADHD - Changing the School Environment

In ADHD Awareness Week, and inspired by blogger k8tthelate's posts one and two, a few possible ways to make those who lie at differing points on the attention spectrum feel more comfortable in school...

ONE: Take the first hour off. Getting the day started, and getting to school, can be a nightmare for those with ADHD. The organizational and attention requirements - getting up, eating, getting dressed, do I have everything? getting to the bus stop or driving, or getting in the car, do I have everything? collecting books, papers, notebooks, lunch, money, do I have everything? getting through the crowds of kids, the hallways, the lighting, finding my locker, do I have everything? getting to class... by the time the ADHD student gets to that first period class they are already worn to a frazzle by the assaults of the morning. Make them uncomfortable now by forcing them to sit still and listen, and you will lose them for the day. Make that first hour a simple "chill out" time. Put no demands on it outside of basic safety. That will let the student relax, and make the rest of the school day possible.

TWO: Wear a ballcap. Yes. A cap with a bill at the front - preferably a very curved bill - keeps the fluorescent lights out of the eyes and acts as a kind of "blinder" - minimizing visual distractions. This simple - very low-tech solution - can make a massive difference. Note, seems to work best if the underside of the bill is a dark color.

THREE: Carry a mobile phone. OK, if I haven't threatened your basic school administrator enough with the last thought, here we go! The mobile phone, with reminders and prompts either set into the phone's alarms feature or delivered from Google Calendar by text message, can keep the student on task in un-matched ways. It can also be used as a watch (without that disturbing thing on your wrist), as a verbal notetaker. And to confirm - via text message to parents and/or teachers, task completion.

FOUR: Make chairs and desks optional. Why force discomfort? If a student is uncomfortable the bulk of their cognitive capabilities become devoted to that discomfort, leaving precious little for knowledge processing. Who cares if they sit on the floor, or by the window, or stand in the back. You can surely negotiate limits, but be fair. After all, plenty of high-paid executives walk around as they work - sitting in a chair for hours on end is NOT career related.

FIVE: Allow escape. Have an escape plan. What does the student do if he/she needs to "get out"? I've negotiated various things for students. With one kid there was a tree outside that could be seen from the office. Another could go sit on the gym bleachers. For a third, the library was an option. In another case the boy just needed the time to walk down the corridor, get a drink, and come back. Whatever. Forcing them to stay when they cannot is insisting on behavioral issues, and thus becomes child abuse. Plus, if kids know that they can leave - that alone creates comfort - and usually means they will have less of a need to leave.

SIX: Use text-to-speech software. For reading, use multi-sensory solutions that engage in at least two ways. Software that says the word while visually highlighting it is more effective for holding attention than paper will ever be. (see previous posts for Literacy Technology)

SEVEN: Don't give extra-time on tests. Attention is a problem and you want me to spend twice as much time taking your stupid test?! How ridiculous. Instead, use literacy technology (see above) to enhance reading (WYNN and read-and-Write are great for this, but even Microsoft Reader will do) and break the test up into smaller segments.

EIGHT: Don't insist on homework right after school. This is horrible. After a school day what these kids need most is something completely different, totally disconnected. Give them free hours, and negotiate a slightly flexible "return to work" time.

- Ira Socol

14 September 2007

The Classroom Mobile

Few things draw faster, angrier responses from American teachers than when I suggest that classrooms should actively include mobile phones. I couldn't possibly get more opposition if I suggested pornography or kick boxing.

"They'll cheat!" "They'll get stolen!" "They'll take nasty pictures!" "They'll be texting their friends all day!" And on and on... sort of, as if, before mobile phones students were not cheating, passing notes, stealing things, making nasty pictures...

But to me, and many others, the contemporary mobile is the invention we've been waiting for since Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy described the "indispensible guide" - that pocket-size electronic book/web browser. If you can put the world's greatest library and the fastest, most complete communication tool into a student's hands - why wouldn't you? If you cannot figure out how to leverage these capabilities - should you really be teaching 21st Century students.

This video from TeachersTV raises many of the questions and concerns, and displays a bit of the potential. It is well worth a half-hour of your time.

- Ira Socol

24 August 2007

Ask your principal... (part one)

Back to school time, and soon, whether you are parent or teacher, you'll be in meetings with those who administrate. So here are a few questions to ask...

How does this school teach contemporary communications technology? Do our students learn to write a business email? Do they learn how to apply for a job online? Are they taught how to send a "business style" text message to a hypothetical employer? What about appropriate voice mail messages (both outgoing and incoming)? Can they send an email from their mobile phone that an employer can understand? Do the students learn the etiquette of selecting appropriate email addresses for themselves? If not, how will they become employable?

How does this school teach contemporary research? What is the curriculum as it relates to effective use of Google, Google Scholar, Wikipedia, Library Resources? How are search terms taught? How do we show students how to analyze the quality of information received via searches? How do we show students how to document their searches? If not, how will our students succeed in either college or high-level professions?

How does this school prepare students to learn new technologies? Our sixth graders will graduate into a technological world we cannot quite yet imagine: what is being done to prepare them to comfortably play with and learn all the new, and essential to employment, technologies that will appear across their lifespans? Are computers set up to re-image themselves, so students can "play" without causing any real damage? Are teachers allowed to download and install software to investigate? Is there "a low cost" to failure when students try new things and new methods? If not, aren't we preparing our students for the best jobs of five years ago?

How does this school embrace Universal Design Technology? Are students with "disabilities" and "differences" being actively encouraged to test and discover technology solutions for those things they have difficulties with? Do we teach the proper set up of spell-checking, grammar-checking, and Auto-Correct in Microsoft Word? Do we demonstrate spell check in Firefox? in Email programs? Do we have alternative keyboards and mice? Do we have (at very least) the free literacy support software - CLiCk, Speak - NaturalReader - Microsoft Reader - installed on every school computer? Is Speech Recognition routinely available? Screen magnification? If a struggling reader tests badly do we try the test with text-to-speech software? Do we always favor tech solutions that promote independence over "we'll read to you - write for you" solutions that promote dependence? If not, how will these students become independent?

- Ira Socol

12 August 2007

Guest Comment

on Mobiles in the Classroom (see below), I wanted to honor a brilliant response at the end of the debate on the Times' Blog... It shows that educators, politicians, and all those who plan policy really do need to listen to students...

"While I do sympathize with Ira’s and Stephen’s comments, I must digress somewhat merely because their (well mostly Stephen's) educational experience’s in NYC’s public schools seem to delineate outside the mainstream.

"The high school I graduated from a few years ago outside Coney Island in Brooklyn had a graduation rate of less than 60%. Its other percentile averages in regards to crime, suspensions, etc were well within several percentage points of the city wide norm. Furthermore, half-way through the school year one of the boroughs worst performing schools was shut down due to the “applaudable” No Child Left Behind Act resulting in an influx of the some of the less than impeccable youths the city has to offer.

"With those heartening pre requisites, I wish to address those of you who fall into the anti-cell phone/BJ Piel camp:

"Cell phones are just another scapegoat in a history of attributing the failures of public education to anything other than the GROSS failure of the Department of Education.

"My high school experienced a succession of such trivial pursuits beginning (#1) in my freshman year with the initial random inspection of lockers to the outright removal of them. (In fact they didnt remove most of them, they actually hired handymen to come into the school and bolt them shut) As we all know, drug trafficking in high schools came to a complete stop in the 2001-2002 school term…oh…wait a second…

"(#2) Two years later my high school began closing its gates (this was not a vertical campus in most respects) and locking students in for the majority of the day in attempt to, again, restrict drug trafficking, ensure peer safety, etc, etc….and, again, the 2003-2004 school year was the first in which students were safer than ever before…well not quite…

"The fact is students are people just like everyone else on this blog. They are effective problems solvers and thinkers. And although drug trade and gang association may not be as academic as going to class and studying, I assure they are just as savvy, requiring every bit of intellect ingrained in our human genomes. Those students inclined to engage in such unwholesome activities will do so with or without cell phones. Cell phones are a simple tool of a mechanism, that I imagine, existed long before I enrolled in the public education system.

"Even if this cell phone ban were to come into fruition it will hardly have an effect on those students you are out punish, BJ Piel. The human brain is far more complex than removing lockers, locked gates, and cell phone bans.

"What is truly laughable is that several comments have been made by people suggesting that they lived through high school without cell phones some 10, 15, 30 years ago. While I hardly believe that were possible (note the sarcasm), I am sure that even then the crime rates in our public schools were in fact MUCH HIGHER. My understanding is that overall crime in this country has actually DROPPED in the past 20 years.

"20 years ago, drugs were still being sold, the nerds were still being clobbered, and boys were still showing off their latest pornographic catch. Cell phones have merely replaced the old mediums!! ha-ha I am now just reminded that locker I received on orientation( and was subsequently taken from me, as well as the entire student body within a year) did in fact have pages from a Playboy ripped out and pasted to the back wall before I first opened it!!

"You are all fools caught in the punishment game. Prevention is the key, and prevention cannot be viewed on such a narrow scope as banning cell phone use. If you want students to behave in class, then encourage your local state assemblyman to draft and support legislation that increases spending on public education directed at enriching student interest and garnering the best and brightest teachers being pumped from this nations universities.

"As I had stated in my former post (#8), NYC is in dire need of better educators. It’s a capitalist game, and in this market the suburbs are ahead. No potential teacher wants to earn less AND work in a failing school system…only those rejected from Long Island (and of course the brave few who forgo salaries for rewarding consciences, I do truly commend!) trickle down into my former school system.

"Stop alienating this city’s youth or we’ll learn to bite back, and know this, we are younger, greater in number, and ever increasingly more desperate to be men and women. Don’t let our adulthood be defined by criminal behavior; our potential can serve such greater purposes."

- a blog poster named "Zigis"

10 August 2007

The "Education Mayor" vs. Education

New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is an odd candidate for "Luddite of the Year" - but he's making that title his goal.

As schools around the world adopt mobile phones and other hand-held devices as essential educational content delivery systems, as discreet disability accommodations, and as a platform from which to teach appropriate technology use, the Mayor, head of a school system that can barely graduate 51% of secondary students who haven't dropped out by tenth grade, is leading a campaign to make life in school less relevant.

This is all pretty sad coming from a guy doing "pre-campaigning" for President as "The Education Mayor," and even sadder considering he built his fortune using technologies he won't allow students to use.

To make himself sound completely ridiculous, the Mayor told a radio show this morning that, "students use cellphones to cheat on tests, look at pornography and discuss unimportant things like dinner plans with their parents." [The New York Times] Well, ya know Your Honor, students use paper and their mouths to cheat on tests, look at pornography and discuss unimportant things every day in your fourth rate schools. You could ban paper, pens, pencils, talking, and perhaps sign language as well, but its still a ridiculous argument.

The way to get students to use technology appropriately, whether that technology is Gutenberg's or Virgin Mobile's, is to bring it in to the classroom, to teach with it, to teach about it, and to make it part of the educational experience. And the way to engage students is to use the information technology that is an essential part of their lives to help them learn and communicate.

Unfortunately this debate too often devolves into the ridiculous "safety" vs. "it's not the way I went to school" debate. Which is typical of "news" within the technophobic New York Times, but highly unfortunate.

If your school bans the mobile phone, ask your administrators why an educational institution would ban the most critical communication system of the time? Ask your administrators exactly what future they are preparing their students for?

- Ira Socol

for the skeptics - a little documentation
Mobile Phones in Educational Settings
Potential of Mobile Phones - Active Learning
Educational Multi-Media on Mobiles
Sub-Saharan Africa Mobile Multimedia Classroom
Sydney Australia E-School

01 August 2007

"more emphasis on children learning through play"

Of course this requires a "social structure" which allows for parenting time, so it cannot be considered in a nation like the United States, but many, many years ago, my mother, a third grade teacher, said that if she could do anything it would be to stop forcing reading and maths down the throats of unprepared children in first and second grades... "the damage done," she said, "is almost impossible to repair."

Pupils 'should begin school at age six or seven'

Anthea Lipsett
Wednesday August 1, 2007

Teachers today called for children to start school at six or seven years of age rather than four, as is currently the case.

The motion was presented to delegates at the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT) conference on Annual Playday, which celebrates children's right to play.

PAT former chair Deborah Lawson said children should be prepared for life and lifelong learning instead of the present focus on academic achievement and preparing them for school.

"If we move to a broader early years curriculum where the emphasis is not on the academic achievement by the age of five, but on a broader preparation of life and lifelong learning, we would not need to raise the school leaving age, which could be seen as remedial action for not getting things right at the foundation level," she said.

Countries that place more emphasis on children learning through play - such as in Scandinavia and central Europe - suit the way children learn much better, Ms Lawson said.

They have a broader curriculum and do more to prepare children for life and lifelong learning.

"Recent research suggests that children today do not have enough opportunity for free undirected play due to the increasingly hurried and pressured lifestyle that many families lead," she told delegates.

These children may be at a disadvantage when faced with real danger, as they may not have the skills to deal with difficult situations, she explained.

"Play allows children to have fun - so important - learn to socialise, make friends and share, express feelings, make choices, negotiate and problem solve," she added.


- Ira Socol

23 July 2007

Ending the "Reality Free Zone"

Alan November calls it the "Reality Free Zone" in the June 2007 Technology and Learning, and with just a month to go before school begins, you've got a fight on your hands.

American schools, even more than most of the world's, have locked themselves and their students in a prison of the past. They deny the needs of their students. They deny the tools of the society they exist in. And they deny the world their students exist in as well as the future world those students will graduate into.

"School" of course, is always a conservative institution. It is, first and foremost, a method of social reproduction. Politicians, administrators, university education faculties, and teachers themselves, all believe that they are in the business of teaching young people to be "just like themselves" - after all, they've succeeded, right?

That's a dangerous business in most times. History (if taught properly) teaches us that societies which stagnate, fall. It is incredibly dangerous right now, with global change spinning at a faster and faster rate, and all the populations of the world grasping for their piece of the future.

The world of yesterday relied on a certain set of what November calls information "containers." It used printed books and handwritten notebooks. It used index cards and card catalogues. It used radio and film and television. It used landline phones and magnetic tape. It even began using computer hard drives. Schools, of course, were not even happy with all of those, privileging print and handwritten notes above all others as "they" pretended that all knowledge within books was accurate and good, and all knowledge gained by other means was suspect. In schools, everything that came from outside the historical lines formed by the invention of the pen and Gutenberg's breakthrough in 1450 was deemed illegitimate. Students were no more allowed to audio record a lesson than they were permitted to count on their fingers.

Today the containers have changed. The dominant information holders in the world are the laptop or handheld computer, the mobile phone, the iPod (digital music or music/video player), and the text message by phone or computer. But schools, well, they haven't even grudgingly given in to the 1970s. And they continue to abuse children by separating them from reality and by preparing them for the best jobs of 1967.

What should your school do?
Welcome technology
Teach technology
Embrace technology

Welcome technology: Every technology banned - or not actively used - is a technology unlearned. It was important, in 1850, to teach handwriting - handwriting was the prime communication method, along with Morse Code. It was important to teach the typewriter in 1950, that was a principle business and academic communication tool. But there have always been other "containers" that schools avoided, which have produced massive cultural failures. In 1850 it was vital to teach students how to listen to political rumour and political argument, how to pick facts from fiction. But this was not taught. In 1960 it was vital to teach students how to view film and television, how to pull real information and determine veracity. But this was not taught. One could argue that the legendary response to Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds represents an absolute failure of American schooling, as was Fox Broadcasting's concerns in 2003 that viewer's of The Simpsons would mistake a fake cartoon news crawl for the real thing.

So bring 'em in... the iPods, the mobile phones, the laptop computers, the handheld computers. Bring 'em in, pass 'em out. Flood the classrooms with them. Right now the typical school classroom has less technology in it than almost any other public space. Less than any office. Less than the local Wal-Mart. Less than the neighborhood restaurant. Nothing will change unless that changes.

Teach technology: Teaching responsible use of information and communications technology is what will open the world for your students. I constantly hear teachers whine about the "way kids use these things" (the strange English of IM and Text, over-reliance on unchecked Wikipedia), but I barely see them teaching Google (half the US teachers I meet don't even know the use of quotation marks with search terms, how could they teach Google?). Guaranteed: your students will need to use internet search engines in their university, in their jobs, in their careers. Guaranteed: your students will communicate with their employers and co-workers via email, IM, and text message. Guaranteed: your students will need to learn from podcasts, blogs, and vlogs, as well as downloaded and "voiced texts" in higher education and in careers. Guaranteed: your students will need to use Google Maps, on-line translation software, on-line international conversion software, and will need to access news sources on-line simply in order to survive in the world. If your school is not actively teaching these technologies, it is really not educating at all.

Embrace technology: The hardest thing about education is this -politicians who were educated 40 or 50 years ago direct administrators who were educated 20 or 30 years ago. Those administrators direct teachers who were educated 10 or 15 years ago. And someone, out of this ancient training, we're supposed to produce students fully prepared for the future.

Students must be taught not just how to use, but how to learn technology. How to learn it on their own. How to share that knowledge with each other. And how to use that knowledge positively and constructively.

You won't teach that with filters. You won't teach that with locked down devices. You can only teach that by opening up the technology and by letting students learn by doing, by failing, and by screwing up, in an environment with less than drastic consequences for mistakes.

After all, as you face a room full of sixth graders, can you even imagine the technology that they will need when they enter college ? No you can't, but here are two more guarantees: They will need to know it. And history will judge you by how prepared those students are for that future world.

- Ira Socol

08 July 2007

The Google Toolbox for Your Student

If you have a student with organizational troubles – and isn't that all students? Then, there is no better tool than the fully-implemented Google Account. This is the ideal study-and-life-support solution for almost all secondary and postsecondary students.

Combined with the Firefox Browser (for PC or Mac) and free add-ons to that system, the Google supports can provide an absolutely free system that will give your student the tools that help put academic success far more within reach.

Start with Gmail. http://gmail.google.com/ All of your family should be on this top-shelf e-mail system. It includes built-in chatting, and can have GoogleTalk installed as well. It will also show you the status of your "friends" (are they on-line? Are they available to chat?). But that is just the start: Gmail oraganizes all your conversations into "streams" that allow you to track everything said. Gmeil has the finest search engine of any email system, so you will not "misplace" vital emails. Gmail also comes with 3 gb of storage that almost eliminates the need for USB "jump" drives. Have anything you want to carry with you? Attach it to a "draft" email, and it will be available to you on any computer. (Note: If you are not scanning in all your travel documents, from passports to tickets to medication lists, and storing them this way, do not complain if you lose things on a trip.) (Note2: you can install the "Gmail Drive Extension" http://www.viksoe.dk/code/gmail.htm which will allow you to simply drag files on your computer into your Gmail Drive the way you currently move things around in Windows.)

Now, add the Calendar. http://www.google.com/calendar Google Calendar is brilliant, simple to use, and allows various levels of sharing. Thus, you can add dates and events into your student's calendar, and so, with the right permissions, could his or her teacher, etc. (there are also private settings, not all events must be shared). Everything that other calendars have is here, the ability to make things repeat in any pattern, the ability to invite others, the ability to add notes/descriptions, the ability to map locations.

What Google has not yet added is a task list… but, spend no money. Instead, sign up for RememberTheMilk http://www.rememberthemilk.com/ and get a complete, also sharable, task device. Add it into Google Calendar by adding this widget http://blog.rememberthemilk.com/2006/11/add-your-tasks-to-google-calendar.html, then, the "to do list" will appear via a check-mark at the top of each date. [To add RememberTheMilk to your iGoogle homepage, go to http://blog.rememberthemilk.com/2006/10/add-your-tasks-to-google-personalized.html.]

Here's another crucial Google Calendar capability: Despite all the talk after the incidents at Virginia Tech about how difficult universities find it to merge email and texting, you can have Google Calendar text your student's mobile phone at a chosen time before any specified appointment. I've even used this as a travel, and as a back-up alarm clock.

Google Docs and Google Notebook are next. Google Docs http://docs.google.com/ provides free word processing and spreadsheets with free on-line storage, and the possibility of multi-simultaneous-user collaboration. That is, many people can be editing the same document at the same time, and you can decide who gets to collaborate and who might also get to see – but not edit. (Special Note: for those who run across re-calcitrant WordPerfect users, Google Docs is the perfect WordPerfect to MS Word translation tool.)

Google Notebook, http://www.google.com/notebook/ when the widget is installed in a computer's Firefox or Internet Explorer browser, allows you to grab any text as you research something and store it in a specified on-line "notebook." In Firefox on PC this is a simple "right-click function." It revolutionizes research.

The best use of all of this is with Firefox http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/ the best browser available. Firefox, with its security, its tabbed-browsing, its ease of use is fine right "from the download" but you can make it much better. Begin by adding ForecastFox https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/398 for on-screen weather. Then Map + https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/2394 (currently US only, sorry) so that right-clicking any highlighted address in any website will give you a map for that address. gTranslate https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/918 offers right click translation of words and sentences for English and 8 other languages and German-French. For any student with literacy issues add Charles L. Chen's brilliant CLiCk, Speak http://clickspeak.clcworld.net/downloads.html which reads any website to the user. You will also want Merriam-Webster's one-click Dictionary button http://www.m-w.com/downloads/firefox/firefox-button.htm.

Now, linked to your students desktop or laptop computer, and/or PocketPC, and Mobile Phone, you have a full-featured support structure, that helps your student keep track of classes, of assignments, of appointments, of life. That helps them study. Helps them read. Helps them write. And every bit of it is absolutely free.

  • Gmail (with Chat)
  • Google Calendar with RememberTheMilk and Text-Messaging
  • Google Documents (word processing and spreadsheets)
  • Google Notebook
  • Google Talk
  • Firefox 2.0 with add-ons
  • CLiCk, Speak
  • gTranslate
  • ForecastFox
  • Map+
  • M-W One Click Definitions
- Ira Socol