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

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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.