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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Garlic Necklace, Not a Silver Bullet

It's now been two months since my attendance at ASCD's Annual Conference in Houston.  Upon reflection, what I learned there is still permeating and percolating in my consciousness, and has already lead to some transformative action.  (To take one example, I incorporated what I learned from Aaron Sams and Jon Bergmann and changed my Flipping and Blending PD.)

One of the perks of ASCD membership is access to a wealth of resources, such as their monthly magazine Education Leadership.  In this month's May 2015 issue, a title of an article jumped out to me: "A Vision for Mobile Learning: More Verbs, Fewer Nouns," by Julie Evans.  As our district is waist-deep in charting our digital conversion course for next year and beyond, Ms. Evans reminded me that our concentration should NOT be on "the features of specific devices, concerns about infrastructure, and debates on policies to support (or limit) usage."  Rather, "educators need to pay much more attention to the learning goals associated with mobile initiatives" if they want to "transform teaching and learning."  As the title suggests, "the primary emphasis in many schools continues to be on the nouns of delivery mechanisms, rather than on the verbs that demonstrate the impact these devices have on learning efficacy and reaching important goals" (author's emphasis).

In my journey this year with our district, I have learned to juggle many nouns. Let's just examine Internet-capable devices I've found in our schools. Nearly every classroom has a Smart Board.  As the beginning of our digital conversion plan (and parallel with the creation of my position last summer),  teachers received either a MacBook Air or a Lenovo Yoga Win8 hybrid touchscreen laptop, a choice based on each individual school's decision.  Beyond that, devices for student use at each school include carts of iPads, laptops, Surfaces....and let's not forget labs full of desktop computers.  Looking ahead, we are currently neck-deep in discussion to determine what the student device of our 1:1 will be.

There is pressure to make the right choice, from within and without.  We want to spend money and time wisely, and make choices that will ultimately improve the learning of our students.  And like so many districts,  we eagerly wish for a silver bullet.  Can we find one clear tool -- for example, a student device -- that meets all of our needs simultaneously?

It then occurred to me, right in the middle of Evans's article, that the solution is not trying to answer that question but to question the question itself; in other words, to question the very premise of the metaphor "silver bullet."  Perhaps such narrow thinking in single-item solutions reveal bigger drawbacks.  We don't need a silver bullet that at best can kill a single werewolf; we need a garlic necklace that can affect multiple vampires, and all at once.  We need to change the paradigm and the metaphorical thinking.

Before you think I've gone looney (see what I did there with the moon reference?), remember I am a former classroom English teacher, and let me unpack my metaphors.

Why is a garlic necklace approach better?

  • More cost and time effective.  You just need garlic cloves and some string.  Silver bullets require...well, silver that's pricey, along with the time to smelt and shape the calibre bullet.  Before you pay considerable money on one tool, see if a choice can blend well with your existing materials people are already familiar with and meet your needs in an acceptable period of time.
  • Better longevity.  Garlic necklaces may do their job for days if not weeks.  Silver bullet is a "one and done." Will your choice of tools only meet one need and/or just fulfill one short term goal?  Sometimes that's necessary, but tools that can meet multiple needs of your visionary "big rocks" are usually better.
  • More user and environmentally friendly.  When it comes to tech, you need things that work well right out of the box with low learning curves whenever possible.  It should also play nice with what you have.  All you have to do with a garlic necklace is put it on and you're thwarting vampires.  Now consider all the ways a silver bullet can go wrong. It's useless without a firearm; if made even slightly wrong it won't fit the chamber; if you have bad aim, you won't have a chance to kill that werewolf.  How well does your edtech work on its own?  How easy is it to learn how to use it?  How well does it work inside your existing infrastructure?
  • Opportunity for personalization.  By the nature of what it takes to make a garlic necklace, yours will undoubtedly look a little different than mine, even if we are borrowing from the same bushel of cloves.  (Heck, you might even add a little flair.)   In the same way, even if utilizing the same cornucopia of digital tools or devices, a school or teacher might still customize how those tools will work together to serve unique needs.  On the other hand, from the very start of making a silver bullet, you are forced to consider the delivery system it is going in and make sure it fits.  We as educators often do the same thing with our digital materials: we force a tool to fit a prescribed perspective, without even questioning if the perspective itself is best for the "verbs" our students need.
  • Accepting messy reality instead of fruitless quests for purity.  Garlic cloves are less than perfect; they crumble and smell.  Silver bullets tantalize in their purity and tempt us to seek them out.  But be wary. I love Voltaire's saying that "Perfect is the enemy of good."  There may be times that a single tool as is meets all demands in its pure form.  More often than not, we must realize that a tool (or combination of tools) may meet many of our needs but hardly any one tool solves all of them.  Their are LMS's, for example, that do more or less than others and have varying prices. But it's possible you may have to pair a LMS with, say, an adaptive learning system that meet some of your other specific needs.  The key is, don't let the chase for "the" solution make you refrain from choosing any solution, even ones that are less than perfect.  You'll be fine as long as you always keep your objectives in mind.

(Yes, I noticed the irony of using a bulleted list to describe the benefits of a garlic necklace approach!)

It should be noted that there are times when one uniform tool might make sense.  For example, to make it easier on students going class to class, a school might benefit from choosing one LMS instead of using half a dozen.  But like anything, you have to weigh the pros and cons of conformity with the more essential needs for the school or district.

It is this type of open, honest reflection that goes straight to the heart of determining district and school level needs and the specific solutions that address them; for example, choosing a student device to purchase for a 1:1.  At first, it seems to make sense to seek the "silver bullet" -- something that does everything and does it with a twinkling flash.  After all, aren't the students worth a little silver?  But it would be better to determine your needs first, and see what resources you already have.  Maybe the correct answer to the wrongly worded question of "Do students need a tablet or a laptop?" is "Yes."  That's not to suggest that you have to have a budget-busting 2:1 or 3:1 or 5:1 initiative.  When considering a student device, if your main daily needs are accessing formative tools, playing streaming videos, sending emails, etc. and you only occasionally need a high-end video editing software suite or take pictures or run AutoCAD software for the entire student body (as opposed to, say, engineering students), do you have other resources to fulfill those short-term projects?   If you are like Shelby, the answer is absolutely yes -- see the third paragraph of this entry!  Indeed, it solves another hairy issue of what happens to all of your existing tech when you go 1:1.  It is not thrown away or sitting unused; the money spent on them has not been wasted. While your 1:1 device may be one kind of device, you still have access to laptop carts, iPads,  and computer labs (with large desktop hard drives and powerful processors) for specialized work.  And speaking of devices that do specialized work, let's not forget that many students already carry one in their pocket: a smartphone.*

All of this ties back into the article by Evans. Twenty-first century learners need that garlic necklace of options:
Students acknowledge that working with a smartphone or tablet can raise their engagement in class, but the stated reasons they value such machines have more to do with efficacy and the effectiveness of the learning process than with the compelling nature of the devices.  In addition, if we accept that most students' vision for learning places a high premium on social, untethered, digitally rich experiences, their optimum learning environment would have to include access to a wide range of mobile devices with differentiated functions that support many ways of learning and many kinds of final products.  One size does not fit all in students' prescription for effective mobile learning.
We must realize that "one size" -- one silver bullet device or tool, be it analog or digital -- does NOT fit all learners and modes of learning at all times.

As future-ready educators, our job is to not only be the "guide on the side" to facilitate their learning, but to also be the "dean of the screen"** that leverages the power of multiple mobile devices to meet students' needs.  On the way in that journey, we should not get hung up on operating systems or brand names or educational acronym fads. As always, the tools are merely methods to get students to communicate, collaborate, and critically think.  In the wonderful words of wisdom I will openly steal from Ross Vittore (Director of Innovative Learning at CCSD59), "We are not teaching students to Toyota or Honda.  We are teaching them to drive."

* I realized after originally publishing this entry that I had not even mentioned the power of personally owned smartphones or BYOD programs as part of a student's "garlic necklace."  I rectified that with a short mention here.

**After using this term, I Googled and found an obscure reference from the past.  Although used originally as a reference to cinema, I must give a nod of the head to J. Stuart Blackton for originally coining this phrase.

As a side note, the Evans article also has some great data on the results of Speak Up surveys from 2014 that include student voices on how they want to learn.  I was particularly interested in Project Tomorrow's recent white paper findings on "Digital Learning 24/7." The infographic "Ten Things Everyone Should Know about K-12 Students' Digital Learning," gathered from over 400,000 Speak Up participants, is highly recommended.

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