More Thoughts on Communications

In a comment on yesterday’s rant about my new big boss’ slightly retro communications style, Doug told me to cut the guy some slack. At least his newsletter wasn’t printed.

Later, in a post on his own site, Doug expanded on his point that he has many different options, each with their own purpose and weaknesses.

Yet these “21st Century” tools have their limitations. Twitter assumes your message needs no more nuance or detail than what 140 characters can convey – and that your entire staff will “follow” you. The Facebook fan page is fine if your school doesn’t block Facebook, you really don’t want any feedback, and that your entire staff will “friend” you. Blogs, podcasts, or infographics are great communication tools provided they are supplemented by and additional communication method that allows readers to know they have been updated. I rather doubt all my staff regularly have or check RSS feed readers.

I don’t disagree with any of this, or the idea that “Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.”.

However, the fact that the boss and the rest of our district leadership seem to automatically fall back on static, one-way communications tools is somewhat disingenuous. As I noted in my post, these are the same people who tell the community how students need to learn “21st century skills”. They need to practice their preaching.  

On the other side of things, I’m also frustrated by many of my colleagues in the department and elsewhere who, as Doug noted don’t use RSS or other aggregation tools. Many people I speak to don’t even have a basic understanding of the concept.

This is not new technology. Blogs, audio and video sharing, social sharing, along with RSS have become the basic building blocks of modern communications and I think an understanding of them should be considered part of basic adult literacy. Certainly they are alternatives to be considered, along with email and pdf, when discussing how to better connect with a community.

BTW, I did suggest to the boss that he write a blog instead of a weekly newsletter and he agreed to consider the idea. I call that progress.

Communicating Like It’s 1999

The new assistant superintendent for our department here in the overly-large school district says he wants to improve communications both within the organization and with his office.

To that end, a couple of months ago he started writing a weekly email message to all of us. Lots of text, one-way message.

This week his efforts took several steps even farther backwards when his message showed up as a PDF newsletter-formatted attachment.

We continue preaching “21st century” skills for kids while modeling methods from the 20th.

Keeping The Future at Bay

Predictions of what will happen next year should be viewed with great suspicion.

Those dealing with what will happen in the next five years are pretty much worthless.

However, these four big predictions about the web’s near term future I think fall into the no-duh category.

1. The Web Will Be Accessible Anywhere

It’s pretty clear that many of us want to be connected, at high speeds, from anywhere we go. Those numbers will only grow and the infrastructure to do it is rapidly expanding as well.

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2. Web Access Will Not Focus Around the Computer

Certainly not around those devices that we currently identify as “computers”.

3. The Web Will Be Media-Centric

Is that a prediction or a statement of current reality?

4. Social Media Will Be Its Largest Component

Again, a trend that is well underway.

I wonder when (or if) these trends (you can’t really call any of them “predictions”) will significantly affect schools and the American education process.

After all, none of them fits particularly well with the traditional teacher-directed educational structure we continue to cling to.

When it comes to using the web, schools work hard to control the times, locations, and circumstances under which access will be allowed, at least for the vast majority of the people involved in the learning process (ie. students).

In most schools and districts, we insist that the equipment used by teachers and students look like a “normal” computer, often locking them up in formal “lab” settings or slightly less formal “mobile labs”.

And, of course, the media used in most classrooms is still overwhelmingly text-based (even when using screens) and we actively discourage anything that looks like social media.

So, is the American education system immune (or just oblivious) to these major shifts in the way the world outside communicates and uses information?

How long can we prevent the future (or the present for that matter) from leaking into our classrooms?


Picture: me, myself and I – in a crystal ball by Michal Kolodziejski. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Email is not Necessarily Communication

The tech news from the past couple of weeks has been rather interesting over with two giant tech companies making big announcements about very different products.

For one Microsoft rolled out their third major attempt to take some of the internet search business (and the ad revenue that goes with it) from Google, named Bing (“the first ever decision engine”?)

Google, on the other hand, demonstrated once again that they are looking at a much bigger picture, beyond simply providing tools for finding web pages.

At their annual developers conference, the company showed off Wave, browser-based software that is probably best described as a communications platform.

Watching the video (and you really should to better understand what they’re attempting to do) left me with a couple of big impressions.

First, the software itself may not be the most unique thing about Wave.

The most interesting part is that this major new product was being shown to the world in a very beta condition (it crashed at least twice by my count) and the company was inviting anyone to tinker with the guts.

Wave will be open source with a large set of completely open APIs and Google is encouraging people to not only write applications for it but even build businesses on top of it.

Maybe our students should be given the option of learning Google development tools as an alternative to Microsoft certifications. The difference between gaining entrepreneurial skills and being locked into someone else’s concepts?

Anyway, the other thought running through my head was about the crappy the communications tools we are stuck with.

In our overly-large school district, we use Microsoft’s Outlook which is pretty mediocre for an email system.

It’s even worse when it comes to actual communication and collaboration, especially when trying to work outside the MS bubble on mobile devices and non-IE browsers.

Ok, I’m not ready to assign miracle properties to Wave based on one demonstration.

However, watching the Google development team explain their vision for this new platform offers a striking contrast between the traditional concept of email (to which we seem wedded) and open, flexible tools that actually foster connections between people.

I wonder if our administrators might be willing to spend a small fraction of the millions we pay to maintain the largest single MS Exchange installation (that’s NOT a good thing) to develop Wave applications for the educational community.

Probably not.

Experimenting With The Touch

I’ve mentioned a couple of times in this space – and in a few 140-word Twitter rantlets – about the test we’re about to run using the iPod Touch here in the overly-large school district.

For those interested in details, here are a few.

Right after spring break (which is next week around here), we will be giving a set of Touch devices to students in six classes (the teachers already have theirs) in six different schools for the remainder of the year.

While our planning group insists on calling this a “field assessment”, that sounds a little too corporate/military for my taste.

I prefer to call this an experiment. One in which we control for a few variables and then step back and see what happens.

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Anyway, the devices will be spread into a variety of classrooms in two high schools (English and Tech Ed), two middle (English and Tech Ed), and two elementary (5th grade and ESL).

We’ll also be providing lots of support including tools to help the teachers and the school tech team manage the devices in a classroom setting.

While syncing one iPod to a computer is a snap, as you might imagine, syncing 25+ of them to one computer is a little more challenging. Plus all the other “what-ifs” that have been tossed around at our planning meetings.

Although some in our planning group would like to have the Touches locked down and cloned the way we do with student laptops, Apple offers no way to do that.

Probably because they designed the Touch to be a very personal communications tool.

However, the most important unknown is what are teachers planning to do with the units in their classes?

That was a major topic during a half-day meeting we held last week with the teachers, principals, and tech teams from the schools involved.

Lots of great ideas were discussed but I’m not sure anyone left knowing how these devices are going to be used. Certainly I expect the kids will surprise us.

Frankly, at this point we have many more questions than answers.

Maybe in eight weeks we will have at least a little better idea of whether and how the iPod Touch and similar handheld communications devices can be used in education. Or not.

In the meantime, as our experiment continues, I’ll offer a few updates and observations around here if you’d like to follow along. And if you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Process Not Processor

One headline in the feed from the British newspaper The Guardian really caught my eye today: “Pupils to study Twitter and blogs in primary schools shake-up“.

That certainly sounds like an intriguing change, although the details are a little weird.

Children to leave primary school familiar with blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia and Twitter as sources of information and forms of communication. They must gain “fluency” in handwriting and keyboard skills, and learn how to use a spellchecker alongside how to spell.

First of all, I wouldn’t bet on Twitter being around when elementary kids graduate, at least not in the form it is when they write the specifics of the curriculum.

But to combine this with skills in handwriting and using a spellchecker…?

I would love it if our overly-large school district would follow the British lead and at least acknowledge the instructional possibilities of these new communications tools.

However, this particular change to the curriculum seems, on the surface, to be yet another attempt to teach tools instead of concepts.

It was the same way a decade or so back when we taught word processing classes (I taught my share of AppleWorks!) instead of focusing on how to improve the writing process using a word processor.

We should be helping our kids understand how to write for the web, to present their ideas, to craft their online image, regardless of the tools.

The emphasis needs to be on the process, not the processor.

Learning From Twitter

David Weinberger offers 4.5 Things Twitter Teaches Us, in which he makes some interesting observations about the microblogging system/current-mainstream-shiny-bauble.

His basic premise is that Twitter is a simple, extensible communications tool in which users themselves determine how best to use it.

Something that’s true about every successful web 2.0 application.

After you’ve finished with this crappy summary, go read the whole thing.

Learning in Your Pocket

It’s interesting how instructional technology gets into the classroom.

A lot of the choices are made by people other than teachers: principals, IT folks, tech specialists, superintendents.

But in my experience, the stuff that actually sticks around, the tools that actually get used and impact kids, is completely determined by teachers and their students.

Which brings us to our big boss who got an iPod Touch for Christmas (coincidentally so did his boss) and since then has been asking a lot of questions about how the devices could be used for teaching and learning.

As a result, many people in our office are now carrying Touches and a group has been tasked with creating a pilot project to put them in some schools.

While I think the iPod Touch could be an excellent learning tool (my iPhone certainly is), I’m also the resident curmudgeon about such things so naturally I have a few concerns about this initiative.

For one thing, in the discussions about the mechanics of using handheld devices with groups of students, it’s clear that many people around here are looking at the iPod Touch the same way they do our current laptops.

Almost exclusively we use computers as group technologies. We have a bunch of them in a lab and then bring in a bunch of kids to use them for some teacher-designed activity.

Or in schools that have laptop carts, we wheel them into a classroom, pass out the units, and then proceed, again largely with group activities.

However, the iPod Touch, and other pocket computing devices, are intended for personal use. They are designed to be customized, personalizing the user’s experience so, instead of everyone seeing the same desktop, we all see ourselves in the device.

In addition, many people in our group (as well as in the research I’ve done) seems to be trying to transfer our traditional classroom uses for computers onto these new device formats.

Of course, some of those applications may actually be appropriate (please, not the “blaster”-type learning games) but instead I think we need a new approach.

We need to come at this from the angle of how portable communications devices like the iPod Touch might be used to individualize instruction rather than continue to homogenize it.

And then there’s the matter of who we have on this planning group. Or rather, who’s not there: teachers and students.

In this case, that deficiency can be easily fixed.

We just need to find people who are already using these devices in our schools (our IT department sees several thousand a day on the network) and invite them to tell us how they use their iPod Touch.

Undoubtably they, especially the kids, will give us some insight we can’t get any other way.

Capturing Life

The Read Write Web wonders if the time we spend digitally capturing and communicating every aspect of our lives is blocking us from actually enjoying life.

Thanks to technology, we never have to forget any experience of our lives. We can snap photos, annotate them, and share them with others instantly. We can archive them to the timeless web for posterity. And maybe one day, our great-great-grandkids can pursue our social network profiles in the cached pages of Internet Archive and learn everything we ever wanted the world to know about us.

And yes, that’s great. It’s amazing, really. But what about us and the lifetime we spent recording these things? Did we waste our lives documenting them and forget to live?

I’m sure a compelling argument could be made for the premise, and there are probably sociologists in the process of studying this particular phenomena.

And there certainly are folks who go overboard in attempting to document every event, major and minor. Just as some will go to excess in other activities.

However, for many people I know, capturing and communicating what they see around them has simply become a significant segment of their lives, not a substitute for it.

Changing the Government Web

A group called the Federal Web Managers Council, “an interagency group of almost 30 senior web managers from the federal government”, has written a white paper for the Obama transition team outlining how the government should be using the web to better serve citizens.

According to the report, there are currently more than 24,000 US Government web sites “(but no one knows the exact number)”, many of which “tout organizational achievements instead of effectively delivering basic information and services”.

So, what does this group recommend to change that?

• Establish Web Communications as a core government business function

• Help the public complete common government tasks efficiently

• Clean up the clutter so people can find what they need online

• Engage the public in a dialogue to improve our customer service

• Ensure the public gets the same answer whether they use the web, phone, email, print, or visit in-person

• Ensure underserved populations can access critical information online

According to the report, some of these improvements can be made quickly and inexpensively.

Others, however, will require far more than technology as government culture adjusts to the concept of being open and transparent, not to mention actually providing service to the people.

Presidential Communications 2.0

The BBC explains how Obama will use the web while in the White House.

“I think a year from now we’ll see streaming of the news conferences… there’ll be that deeper communication and broadcasts directly to people as opposed to through the traditional media… On the technological side, I think there’ll be more applications on mobile devices, more and more video. That will naturally develop as the industry does.”

Barack Obama has already said he wants members of his cabinet to host regular webchats. Some campaigners have suggested that the new president himself should answer questions from the public at the end of his YouTube addresses and White House briefings.

All good ideas. Especially anything that makes communications with the public a two-way process.

However, they’re likely to get a lot of push back from those folks in the “traditional media” who won’t like being ignored.

Change We Can Network

A couple of months ago, there were lots of stories making fun of McCain’s lack of knowledge when it came to using technology.

However, as I noted in my contribution to the mix, I’m not as worried about his personal abilities as I am in the policies he would pursue as president.

One writer sees some major differences between the candidates in the area of telecommunications policy this year, saying that “John McCain is an AT&T guy; Barack Obama is a Google guy”.

In other words, McCain supports the positions of the huge telecom companies who view the internet as their personal highways and would love to extract higher tolls from content providers, especially those offering competing services.

As committee chair [Senate Commerce Committee], McCain also oversaw, and often encouraged, the incredible competition-stifling consolidation in the telecom industry. The country is now served almost entirely by three local phone, four cellular, and four cable companies. In his tenure as chairman, McCain supported nearly every merger. In 1999, he coauthored a bill that would strip the FCC of its ability to veto telecom mergers.

McCain’s mistakes derive partly from a lack of technological curiosity (he doesn’t use e-mail) and the presence of all sorts of Bell guys around him. His campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, Senate chief of staff, and chief political adviser have all worked as lobbyists for Verizon or AT&T.

But more blame lies with his philosophy. McCain espouses what he calls a deep belief in free markets and in keeping government off the backs of business. That’s all well and good, except for when a market—like telecommunications—requires intervention in order to create competition. Unrestricted freedom for the big guy often means death to the little guy.

The result is that the big telecoms sit on their profits while the US, especially in rural areas, fall farther behind the rest of the world in terms of widely-available, inexpensive broadband service.

With any luck, this is one more area of public policy that will change to reflect the needs of the public, as opposed to those of large campaign contributors, after January 20, 2009.

Txtng is Gd 4 U

For all those teachers out there who think texting by students is killing the Queen’s English, a new book* by “Britain’s most prolific linguist” disagrees.

David Crystal’s “Txtng: the Gr8 Db8″ (Oxford) makes two general points: that the language of texting is hardly as deviant as people think, and that texting actually makes young people better communicators, not worse.

Where the naysayers see destruction, Crystal sees growth. He believes in the same theory of evolution for language as some evolutionary biologists do for life: change isn’t gradual.

The effect is similar to what happens when parents yak away to infants or read to toddlers: the more exposure children get to language, by whatever means, the more verbally skilled they become.

Really it’s all about communication and learning to use the appropriate language at the appropriate time.

We need to do a better job of teaching those skills instead of simply dismissing this particular evolution of language.

[* To be published September 1]