Technology & Teaching

I’m sitting in the main hall of the Holiday Valley Yodeler Lodge, where I’ll be talking to about 200 high school teachers about contemporary literacy — in just a few minutes.  At present, there is a horn quartet playing on the floor above and a string quartet on the floor below me.  Interesting, but hard to concentrate.

I do want to say something about the two polls I’ve been running over the past few days — in which I’ve used the word technology more than I typically do during any given three months.  One reason I try to avoid the word is clear when reading through the comments on those posts.  People, rightly, want to clarify exactly what is meant by the word technology, qualifying their answers based on this perspective or that.  Still, it’s not a useless term, and following Alan Kay’s definition, that “Technology is anything that was invented after you were born,” I’m talking about computers, the Internet, software, and devices that you can connect to your computer — things that didn’t exist when I started teaching 33 years ago. 

Question 1

Question 2

My first poll question asked us to consider whether a teacher could be a good teacher without using technology.  The results were just a tiny bit less than an overwhelming, “Yes!” 

As I wrote yesterday, I had a few “good” teachers when I was in school, and this was long before the appearance what we now call technology.  I agree that some teachers, today, depending on their subject, can teach it without using technology, and teach it well.

But this brings us to the second question, “Is that teacher, who is not using technology, doing his or her job?”  The answer here was a fairly resounding, “No!”

I use to say that you should use the tool that was appropriate to the job.  If you can do it with a paper notebook and paper encyclopedia, then those are the tools you should use.  I’ve changed, though.  Actually the world has changed.  Today, our prevailing information landscape is increasingly networked, digital, and abundant.  Information behaves in new ways that are impossible in an exclusively published, print-based world. 

When I was in school, you waited for the 6:00 news, or the morning paper for the latest about the world.  Today, you don’t even go to for the latest. You go to Twitter, where citizen journalists are constantly reporting what’s happening around them.  I learned about the plane crash in the Hudson River from Twitter, and saw the first pictures on Flickr, uploaded from the cell phones of passers-by — before anything appeared on

This changes what it means to be literate.  It changes what it means to be a learner.  Today, being able to read and write and pass a test are not enough.  They are not nearly enough.  Today our students must become information artisans, able to learn, work, play, contribute, and prosper in a new and constantly changing and enriching information environment, and do so in a way that conserves the planet — rather than consum it.  We can not do this today by scratching and printing on pulp-based paper.  Teaching and learning must be digital. 

If you don’t want to do technology, if your not good at technology, then find another calling.

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An Afternoon in Auckland & NECC Reflections

Enjoying a Cappuccino While it Rained Outside

I’ve started my afternoon of walking in Auckland, New Zealand.  Check out was 11:00 – graciously extended to 14:00.  But my flight isn’t until 19:30.  So I headed over to the Auckland Museum, only to be caught in the rain.  I’ve sought sanctuary through a near endless choice of coffee shops, skipping all of the Starbucks for a local establishment with modern decor and lots of patrons.  I ordered a cappuccino — also a bit out of character for me.

I’m usually fairly energized by a new and exotic place, but right now I just want to go home.  Brenda’s trying to find a way to get me home sooner, and it may work out.  Right now, I fly to San Francisco, then on the Washington, where I spend the night.  Then the return train trip back down to Raleigh.  That would be OK, since I do not have any gigs for a few days.  But home is home and it’s where I want to be.

I spent some time on Twitter this morning, scanning the NECC blogs and all of the post-conference reflection posts.  No conclusions for me, especially since I left early, Even thought I do not feel any closure, I still feel that it was a successful experience for me.  I had many opportunities to talk with people who are smarter than me — though the the reprise that constantly rang through my head was, “This is the place of unfinished conversations.”

The bloggers’ cafe was the hot spot of the conference.  I’m not sure why I was not drawn to the spot last year.  There seemed to be a contentiousness there while the cafe was entirely friendly, jovial, and everyone was looking for help or to help.

Although the the EduBloggerCon was a huge hit and hugely helpful, I think that the high point for me was the Leadership Symposium.  It was a highly structured gathering, designed to generate some ideas for the development of a new National Technology Plan.  It wasn’t easy.  At my table, there were officials from state education agencies and outspoken independents, like me.  There was a lot of tug-of-war, and the time constraints for our various tasks were extremely frustrating.  If asked, I would suggest that next time, our tasks be fewer and simpler, so that we have time to delve more deeply into eachother’s ideas and perspectives.

One of the things that frustrates me about these quick conversations is the need to rely on buzz terms.  We all know what they mean and mostly agree with their direction.  But what is needed right now is a richer description of exactly what project-based learning, student-centered instruction, and authentic assessment look like.  It frustrates me because I feel that the time has come to move forward.  But we will only be able to move with clearly described vision, not mutually agreed-upon neologisms.

Some of the most powerful ideas I came away with from the presenters and the conversation:

  • Leaning today must be more than conceptual.  Textbooks and lectures are conceptual.  Students must work their knowledge using literacy skills as tools.
  • Professional development must involved “doing.”
  • Teachers/educators need time to keep up.  It needs to be part of the workday.
  • Students may not want to use the technology the way we want them to — and this may not be a bad thing.
  • Teachers need permission and encouragement to take risks.

Someone at our table reminded us of the little picture puzzles that, as I recall, use to show up in Cracker Jack boxes.  You had to arrange the tiles so that they made a single picture, but there was only room to move one of two tiles into a single empty position at a time.  Nothing else could move until this last tile moved first.

As we discussed the various barriers to retooling education, it seemed that the steps that needed to be taken were always blocked by some other tile.  What’s the one barrier that needs to move first, before we can address the others?  I would suggest that it is assessment.  Nearly everything else comes down to assessment.  How we hold ourselves (how the government holds us) accountable is the giant stone in the way of change.  It all comes down to, “but its the tests that drive what we teach and how we teach it.”

My group was assigned to look for ways to make learning more engaging.  So what would engaging assessment look like.  What kind of accountability scheme might we grow into, that is fun to participate in, both for students and for teachers?  How might we make assessment and accountability an integral part of the formal learning process — a learning process that comprises fun and engaging hard work?

I’m looking forward to the NECC where the big new thing, the new buzz, is a style of portfolio assessment that integrates into the teaching, learning, classroom, school, and community cultures.

Another Interesting Photo

Confederate Pyramid
Meade’s Pyramid

I used that setting on my camera that take multiple shots, and this is the only one that came out nearly clear.  I’ve seen it before, but, out of curiosity, I Twitpic’ed it this morning to see if anyone knew what it was.  Here’s what I learned.

There is a Civil War memorial near Fredericksburg, VA that is a twenty foot high stone pyramid. It was built in the 1890’s by a railroad company to commemorate the Confederate victory there in 1862. It is right next to the auto-train tracks. It’s far away from where the National Park Service wants you to look at it, across a ditch and the railroad tracks. It might be possible to get closer to it, but I have never tried. I think Amtrak has a fence up and the pyramid is either on Amtrak or private land. ((“Mysterious Confederate Pyramid.” 14 Jun 2001. 27 Jun 2009 <>.))

This information was contributed to by Willie Zaza in June of 2001.  Someone else added this later.

It’s known officially as Meade’s Pyramid. It stands 23 feet tall, is built of granite, and was erected in 1898 by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society, who originally just wanted a sign. The railroad vetoed that idea, so the Society built a 17-ton pyramid.

What I find interesting is that I learned of this, in less than ten minutes, by way of Jo Fothergill, from her home, in New Zealand.

Who says learning has changed!

My First NECC09 Blog

Written yesterday at the airport

Packing 4 NECC by Todd Hamilton

I’ve been at home for just more than 24 hours.  It was a good day — a fathers day.  The kids gave me two seasons of The West Wing, including season 4, whose first episode, “20 Hours,” is the most YouTube’d WW of all seven seasons.

I spent the last couple of hours scanning through NECC blogs.  It’s been fun and has helped me to find the spirit.  It would be easy for me to say that I go to so many conferences that one more…  But it’s not the case.  NECC is huge — in just about every way you can imagine.

I’ve especially enjoyed the packing blogs.  “What do I pack?”  “Do I take my MacBook or the new Asus netbook.”  “Which camera, my pocket Sony, or the cool dSLR I got for Christmas?”

The most interesting post was from the SL team at Discovery Educator Network.  In NECC Prep Sessions a Big Hit, Lori Abrahams describes a series of recent sessions put on by DEN with reps from ISTE, including program chair, Anita McAnear.  The purpose of the sessions was to provide some tips for people who will be attending the international edtech conference for the first time.  Many conferences have sessions first thing, first morning, for newbies.  But advancing this one to Second LifeTM makes a ton of sense.

Several people talked about sessions they will be conducting, including Harry G. Tuttle, who’ll be sharing ideas about assessing Web 2.0 tools.  I have to confess that there’s a place on the back of my neck that always starts to itch when I see someone wanting to evaluate technologies.  I can’t help but feel that as soon as you start applying rules, the tech stops being the Swiss Army Knife that it should be.

But Tuttle makes an excellent point in his post, Woeful Book Wiki Turned to Wow Book Wiki.  As he has visited many school and classroom wikis, he has become increasingly discouragedl, as he notices that..

..most wikis are simply an online collection of student work. For example, all students in a class may do a book report and these book reports are posted to the class wiki.  The students post their book report and the project is done when the last book report is posted. There has been no interaction among students or other adults.  They have only worked in one learning style, linguistics.  Likewise, the students have paraphrased  (summarized) their book; they have not analyzed it. ((Tuttle, Harry G. “Woeful Book Wiki Turned to Wow Book Wiki.” [Weblog Education with Technology Harry
G. Tuttle] 20 Jun 2009. Web.21 Jun 2009. <>.

Harry then describes a wonderful alternative that creatively expands the wiki from collection of ideas, to an idea collective. Read his blog post for the details.

Of course, this is not an uncommon situation.  So many people come to these conferences looking for the tech de jour.  Then they bring it home and integrate the life out of it.
It may be the way that we present the technology — like snake oil salesmen.  I’m raising my hand.

Or perhaps it’s just what people come to the conference for — to discover and embrace the new cool thing.

I would like to suggest, for the coming conference, a moratorium on the phrase, “Integrate technology.”  Don’t say it at NECC.  Don’t even think it.  I’ll have nanobots loose at the convention  center floating on the breeze, listening for utterances the IT.  If you say it, or think it, my nanobots will hone in and drain the electricity from your iPhone.

Enough of the fun.  The answers we return from NECC with should not be, “This is the technology my students should be using.”  The answer should be,

“Here’s how my students can learn that is more relevant to their future, their learning skills, and the information landscape on which we all live.”

I’ll see many of you there, for the few days I’ll be attending NECC.

Does it Hurt the Profession

This continues to be an amazing trip — if only because I left home last Friday and have yet to get on an airplane.  I love it.  Yesterday, I was lucky enough to catch the Acela high speed train back from Boston to NYC, arriving at 8:00.  The hotel is on a fairly shady street, so I stuck to my room last night, forgetting to e-mail my brother with a breakfast restaurant suggestion.  A little surprised that a New Yorker would ask a North Carolinian for restaurant suggestions in NYC.  I’d caught sight of a dinner on my walk up from Penn Station, but couldn’t remember the name this morning.

The Tick Tock Dinner, as seen from Google Street View.

So, and this is a first for me, I pulled up Google Maps, found Penn Station.  Then I switched to “Street View,” retracing my walk, and there it was/is the Tick Tock Dinner, just beneath the Hotel New Yorker.  It’s OK.  I’m not ashamed of being old enough that this stuff still AMAZES me.

It was an excellent day at Nobles and Greenough School yesterday for their Emerging Technologies Conference.  I was a little intimidated by the fact that their last two keynotes were Alan November and Will Richardson.  But the day went off well, made new friends, and was very pleased to witness Liz Davis’ first large audience presentation/keynote, which she did with Tom Daccord — obviously seasoned at this sort of thing.  She was at ease, funny, highly expressive (which is important on a stage), and passionate.  She did GREAT. 

However — and the point of this blog — during my afternoon session about on-demand, in-time, on-going, and casual professional development, a young man, from the predominantly private school audience, politely interrupted to ask,

“In our efforts to improve the community’s image of teaching as a profession, does it benefit us to openly utilize this social information environment, which is not formally published, is un-vetted, in unrespected in some communities.” (a liberal paraphrasing of the question)

There was a lot that I could spout from the Web20 koolaid.  But what’s tricky is that we all have our own vision of the profession and makes it a profession — and it isn’t right for me to intrude on his vision with my own.

So what does this messy new information landscape that I’m suggesting we make significant use of, do to the profession?  Please comment!

But here’s a paraphrasing my answer — or what I was trying to convey.

“I believe that the professional educator, today, must engage in this open and global conversation.  We should blog (or whatever), reflecting on our experiences and our profession. We should actively and generously share what we’re learning, contribute to the conversation and the the growing body of knowledge, and we should invite other stakeholders into the conversation where appropriate.  Our professional and personal image should become dependent on the quality of our communications, the logic and validity of our ideas, the threads of connection with the ideas of others, and our knowledge built from success and failure.

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Your Game Puppet

Flickr Photo by Mark CoffeeGeek from Vancouver

Tweeted yesterday that during a pilot project in Portugal involving 8 and 9 year olds setting up virtual businesses in Active Worlds, they were encouraged to call their avatars, their “toys.”

I just discovered a Tweet-reply from VWassessments (Kathy Landerson).

Interesting -in SL -“avatar”, in WoW players call them “toons” & have main & alts, in Muxlim Pal -it’s ur “pal”, in Spore ur “creature” (Landerson)

I wonder how your term for your game puppet affects your relationship with the player identity and/or the player’s relationship with the game?  I’m sure somebody’s researching that.

For that matter, how does the students relationship with a end product affect his or her relationship with what’s being learned — or how well it’s being learned?

I always preferred being the race car.

Landerson, Kathy. 11 Apr 2009. Online Posting. Twitter. Web: 13 Apr 2009.

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200 Virtual Worlds for Kids

Club Timemachine [click image to enlarge]

I am still working on this article on virtual worlds in education, an ran across this report from January 26, 2009.  According to Virtual Worlds Management, more than 200 youth-oriented worlds are currently live or in development.  This is an increase from 150 known youth-oriented virtual worlds in August of 2008.

I pulled the listing into a spread sheet and did a little inquiry.  Here are some of the things I found:

  • 38 of the virtual worlds products are explicitely intended for children six and younger.
  • Two are being developed in Australia, 2 in Belgium, 8 in Canada, 2 in China, 3 in Denmark, 4 in Finland, 2 in France, 4 in Germany, 3 in Israel, 5 in Japan, 4 in Korea, 2 in Spain, 2 in Sweden, 14 in the UK, and 126 in the U.S.
  • One is in Alpha, 10 are in closed beta, 36 are in open beta, 7 are in concept, and 26 are under development.  Most of the rest are live.

“200+ Youth-Oriented Worlds Live or Developing.” Virtual Worlds Management. 2 Feb 2009. Show Initiative, LLC. 26 Jan 2009 <>.

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Two Conferences

Flickr Photo from Naace Conference Blogger

I have right fond memories of my time at the Naace 2008 conference in Torquay, England, this time last year.  This is partly because both Brenda and Martin went with me, train’ing through the country side, the day we spent in St. Ives, and the nearly 24 hours we spent learning the subways of London.  Then there was the part that was the hospitality of the folks at the conference.  Honestly, I felt so far behind where those folks were, not so much from practicality as in the direction and momentum for change for schools in that country.

Last year, the Rt Hon Jim Knight MP, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, presented the opening keynote from Second Life™.  I was blown away by the (political) courage involved in that.  This year, he’ll be interacting with conference attendees via Twitter.  I can’t help but believe that when our department of education (not just edtech) is interacting directly in the conversations of in-the-trenches educators in U.S. schools, we might, then, start seeing progress and momentum.

Naace 2009 is taking place right now, and I’ve added Twitter tracking to Hitchhikr.  Naace can be followed at

From the convention center web site

Speaking of U.S. conferences, North Carolina’s ISTE affiliate, NCTIES (use to be NCAECT) starts their conference tomorrow, here in Raleigh.  I’ll be working all three days, and spending the night at home 😉  Keynotes will be Vicki “Cool Cat Teacher” Davis and Meg “Writer” Ormiston.  Invited speakers include:

I didn’t have to be invited.  I’ll be doing some of my regulars, a pre-conference workshop on PLNs and my virtual worlds session.  However, I’ll be doing a new one, called The Foundational Structure for Learning 2.0, and I’m still working on it.  Also, for fun, Will Richardson and I will be doing a conversational (unconference) session together, back by popular demand from a similar session two years ago.

NCTIES can be hitch hiked to at:

Anyway, it will prove to be an adventurous three days of conferencing in Raleigh, named for Sir Walter, the great British colonizer, and watching Naace, this year in Blackpool, England.

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A Day in Texas

I’ve been at home for a couple of days doing some planning for upcoming events — and trying to find a better Linux distribution for my netbook.  Linux can be a real time-sink for someone like me, who would really “ it if my computer could do this too.”  Anyway, I settled on something called Crunchbang Linux, a derivative of Ubuntu with the Kuki (pronounced “cookie”) kernel inserted in.  Kuki has been enhanced for the Acer Aspire One’s peculiarities.  I hope that those last two sentence impresses you.  I don’t understand it worth a flip, but it’s working just great, and I’m blogging on my Netbook right now at Starbucks.

The Athletic & Fine Arts Center.

The buzz from my day (Monday) at Region XI in Texas is still ringing in my head.  I knew that it would be a different sort of day, when I walked into the “Fine Arts Center,” whose sign actually read, “Atheletic and Fine Arts Center.” I walked in, through a wrought-iron gate, across a high cellinged entranceway, through another opening out into a huge football statium.  OMG, I’m going to be soooo late.

I walked back into the entranceway where there was a ticket office, a worker having just entered through the glass door.  I followed her in and asked about the Region XI event.  In typical Texas friendliness, she ushered me out to some double doors, just outside the gate, and up some stairs, where folks were preparing a huge room for the event — the inclined celling echoing the statium seating above.

It was a good day, however, with, by my approximation, between two and three-hundred folks.  The intended audience was library media specialists, but many of them brought teachers, principals, and even superintendents with them.  The topic was contemporary literacy and the information environment that it rises out of.

I took three things away from the event.  One was the graying,  yet rather aggressive school librarian, who launched her hand into the air when I asked the younger educators among us to share their experiences with social networks.  She insisted, and many concurred, that social networking was no longer the exclusive domain of the young.  This rang true, considering a blog I recently discovered, Social Networking Watch.  In a January 14 post, (Older Adults Among New Members on SNS), Mark Brooks graphs Social Network Service members by age, revealing that a full 36% are older than 44 — 7% older than 64.

The second thing I came away with was a story about a fourth grade class who visited the local Rotary Club (May have been Lions Club) to inform community leaders of how they were using technology in their classrooms.  They did their presentation, and then went about talking withmembers during lunch, taking pictures and video clips, and conferring with each other in the back. 

In the back, they were mixing the content they had collected and they ended the meeting with a video conveying what they had just learned about Lions Club International (May have been Rotary Club). The members were so impressed that the local Chamber of Commerce commissioned the class (4th graders) to attend one of their meetings and to create a promotional video for the organization.

The third thing (and their may have been a fourth, but I can’t remember) was a conversation that we had at the event and that I am starting to have with myself — about project-based learning (PBL).  What got me started on PBL was another conversation I had with a superintendent from California recently, where he reminded me that PBL is outlawed in his state.  All instructional techniques must be directly related to standards and research based — and project based learning was not allowed.

I remember when this happened and it was years ago, so I’d figured that this edict had faded away — and most certainly there are many inventive educators in California who have found ways to include PBL in their classrooms.  But I wonder if there is some distinction about what that Texas educator did and what many of us usually think of when we have students doing projects.  My notion of projects has been to have students take a topic that is curriculum related but something that they have a genuine interest in, and then asking them to research, become an expert, and then prepare some sort of presentation for the class.  It might be a personal performance, a multimedia product, or just a report.

The distinction I wonder about is the difference between project-based learning, and job-based learning.  In this example, the students were working on a project, making themselves experts, and producing an information product that might be of value to other people.  Another example, I heard from Rowland Baker of TICAL, whom I worked for last week in Arkansas.  The EAST Project (Environmental and Spatial Technology)

…focuses on student-driven service projects through the use of the latest in technology. EAST schools are equipped with classrooms containing state-of-the-art workstations, servers, software, and accessories, including GPS/GIS mapping tools, architectural and CAD design software, 3D animation suites, and much more. Students find problems in their local communities, and then use these tools to solve them.

Rowland told me about an Arkansas school where students, involved in the EAST project were saving their county millions of dollars a year.  One of the students wanted to learn how to use GIS and GPS, so he started studying how the local farmers used water (552,000,000 Gallons a year).  He learned, through his study, that with a series of reservoirs, ditches, rises, and pumps, farmers to recycle more water instead of having to drill new and deeper wells. [link]

This is a pretty dramatic example.  The simple difference that I see is that a job-based learning activity produces something of value to others and its value/impact extends beyond the walls of the classroom or school.

There is NOTHING new here, and I am not suggesting a change in educational terminology.  It’s just that the idea of learners using their education as a tool for benefit or change is one that deserves repeating every now and then.

You can learn about the water project and others from this TICAL podcast.

The Active Ingredient

I spent the last part of my time at the computer yesterday, listening to a recent Women of the Web podcast interview with Dr. Gary Stager.  It was a good interview and Stager seemed, on several occasions, to be talking straight from my speaking points — something that is deeply gratifying to me.  He did a better job than most at balancing his constructivist approach with the fact that this is not an either or proposition — that although consciously constructing learning from previous knowledge, frame of reference, and skill is preferred (and natural IMHO), some times and for some objectives, teaching to the students is called for.  

As is often the case, the conversation veered over to the ever persistent question, “How do you reconcile these more progressive constructivist strategies with the demands of standards- and accountability-based teaching.

It’s a hard question to answer and I hope it is a temporary question.  My hope is that “modernized” schools will come to value what students are capable of learning and doing with what they are learning, than what we are capable of teaching.  It was after a rather short play-out of this conversation that things shifted again — “How do you reconcile progressive, constructivist, project-based learning with teachers who are more comfortable with the traditional direct teaching approach — especially as many of these teachers seem threatened by more student-centered education.

It all reminded me of an instance, about 20 years ago, when I was director of technology for a rural school district in North Carolina.  We had a lab of Apple IIe computers at the high school, where computer applications was taught.  They taught AppleWorks, which ran off of a five and a quarter inch floppy disk.  Raise your hands if you remember those!

There were two teachers who taught this course.  One was a business instructor and the other was the school’s Art teacher.  The idea of an Art teacher teaching computer applications seems much less unusual today than it did back in 1985.  Toward the end of the semester the Art teacher, John Bell, had taught word processing and spreadsheets.  It was time for databases.  He presented the class with a problem.  I do not recall the nature of the  problem, but it related to a small business.  Then he said, “I want you to use the database in AppleWorks to produce a report that will solve his problem.”  “The user manuals are over there.  Get to work.”

An Appleworks Manual

This was a first for me, but it immediately made sense.  Learning to rely on a users manual to learn how to operate a new piece of software or operating system seemed like a valid technology skill.  But other teachers at the school didn’t make that connection.  In fact, there was a vehemence to their objections that seemed down-right irrational in its emotional intensity.  They said that that art teacher was not doing his job, that the students were doing it for him.  Being John Bell, he let it run its course and the controversy died down.  But I’ll not forget that.

If you are a parent, then you have certainly had the experience of asking your son or daughter, “So, what did you learn today?” only to be answere with an irritated shrug of the should or a simple, “noth’un!”

I wonder if a reason for many of our students’ lack of enthusiasm for learning is that it isn’t learning that they are doing.  The the active ingredient of traditional classrooms is teaching.  Might our students become more excited and engaged by what they constructively learn than what they are taught.