As we enter the last couple months of the school year, I have been reflecting on just how far we have come at West Langley when it comes to utilizing technology to empower learning for our students. When I arrived at the school in 2010 there was a “computer lab” and a few laptops. Now we are lucky enough to have two 1:1 iPad classes and several “blended” classes that utilize iPads, laptops and Chromebooks to enhance the learning of our children. And while we still have a long way to go on being fully effective in our integration of technology, I started thinking about some of the key things we have tried to implement at our school in order to create a culture where leadership is distributed and staff are challenged, while being respected and supported as professionals in the classroom.
In many ways, this is the number one barrier to successful integration of technology as a learning tool in schools. We are afraid. Afraid the students know more than us, afraid the technology will not work in front of the class, afraid others around us are doing it “better” and so on and so on. In my role as an educational leader, I want my staff to take risks. Innovation can’t happen otherwise. And I don’t mean reckless endeavours, but educators have to feel as though they can try something new and have it fail. And in that happening, know their leaders will support them … by dealing with concerns from parents (and colleagues sometimes), collaborating with them on how to improve things or just simply giving them permission to try something new again. And part of that is modeling a willingness to take risks. I try to do that in my school. I share my learning through a blog because I want my teachers to share their learning through a blog. I leverage social media to create a powerful PLN because I want my teachers to do the same. And sometimes I fail at those things (and many others). But I do it openly. I talk about it. I grow and learn from it because I want my teachers to do the same. And I know if they are comfortable enough to take risks, they will encourage that in the classroom, which is the core of student learning. It is vital that risk-taking be the culture in our schools if we want to fully leverage the powerful tool technology offers.
This can be a hard one as an educational leader. In my role as principal, the pressure on schools, especially when it comes to achievement can be difficult. Things like standardized tests, parent expectations and government initiatives all put tremendous pressure on our schools and the professionals who work there. So as the formal leader in my building, I know it is my responsibility to create a buffer zone for my staff so they can work their magic in the classroom in a safe way. Sometimes that means me being the person to help a parent understand why we might use the iPad to gather formative reading assessment instead of a traditional pen-and-paper test. Or sometimes it means burying those emails containing district data deep in my computer so that staff aren’t stressing about where we rank against other schools (or last year’s class). However you do it, as an effective leader in technology integration, we need to ensure our staff feel safe. There is an art to the teaching profession, one that can’t flourish without some space to do so.
I know it sounds crazy, but let me clarify. I’m not talking about literally wasting money. That would be quite irresponsible, especially at a time when school districts are having to cut back on a regular basis. But the fact still remains, innovation requires people to be able to try things out before they know all the consequences and/or results. As I said before, it requires the environment to take risks. And sometimes that means spending money that appears a “waste” after the fact. For example, at West Langley we wanted to see if Chromebooks could be a way to integrate technology into the learning of our students in a more cost effective way. And while the devices themselves have proven to be invaluable to student learning, some of the accessories we bought to supplement the Chromebooks have not fit with our needs. We paid for Chromecast only to find out it doesn’t really fit with what we are doing on a daily basis. And while some would complain about the $40 that we “wasted” on trying out a Chromecast device, the ability to spend some money to encourage innovation is a necessary part of effective technology integration. Let a teacher buy an app if they feel it may help student learning. Let them attend a conference to better themselves professionally. And do it sometimes, even if you don’t know the end result. The cliche “you have to spend money to make money” doesn’t really work in the school setting. But sometimes you have to spend money to allow innovation and learning to improve.
Riki O’Byrne, a grade two teacher on our staff, is the best example of how important this aspect of effective integration of technology is in truly creating change for students learning. When I came to West Langley three years ago and introduced the idea of using iPads as a learning tool, she was apprehensive, but willing to try. And over those three years, Riki has worked extremely hard, taken risks, learned from countless failed attempts but has come so far along the spectrum it is enough to make any educational leader weep. And all along the way, one of my roles as her principal was to remind her of the small successes she was accomplishing. Whether it was figuring out a screencasting app to empower math lessons, utilizing Apple TV to give students authentic participation in class work or simply understanding the difference between “downloading” and “uploading,” celebrating the small success was instrumental in the tremendous growth that occurred. And recently we were able to celebrate just how successful Riki has been in effectively leveraging technology for student learning after she presented to a group of primary teachers, an exercise she thought unimaginable only three years ago. It is a great reminder for me how important recognizing and celebrating success along the journey is in leading change.
This is the most important aspect of successful technology integration in schools. The importance of relationships can’t be stressed enough, especially when it comes to having technology become seamless and invisible in your building. Too often, as leaders, we want to micro-manage those around us. Try and tell them, down to the last detail, how we want things done. In my experience however, I have found this leadership style to be detrimental in allowing learning to be empowered by technology. I let teachers download apps onto their iPads so they can try them out. I let them attack lessons with Chromebooks in a manner they see fit. I’m there to support them, help them and even buffer them against criticism sometimes because I know they are trying their best, whatever level they are at, to leverage the technology to best meet the needs of their students. We need to trust our staffs as a group of professionals. When a culture of respect is created in a classroom, we know student learning occurs much more easily. The same is true in a school. When teachers feel as those their leaders trust them, and we behave in a manner consistent with that, then growth is exponentially great. And this is true when it comes to technology integration.
As I said before, we have come a long way at West Langley in creating a culture of “engaging students in authentic learning empowered by technology.” And the best part is, it has truly been a collaborative effort of amazing professionals. This post is not designed to take credit for all the success we have had at West Langley … not even close. We would still be that school with an outdated computer lab if it hadn’t been for the tremendous work of every adult in our building. The ideas above simply created an environment where the greatness of each teacher and support staff could flourish, allowing learning that is empowered by technology more and more every day.
I just finished an amazing weekend at the Google Apps For Education (GAFE) Summit at Mulgrave School in West Vancouver. And what an amazing conference it was. I have to be honest, I was a little reluctant to go when it was first brought to my attention, let alone present at it. But a “gentle nudge” by a colleague (thanks Victoria Olson) convinced me to give it a try. And boy am I glad I did. What an amazing time. There was so much I took away from the weekend; here are a few of the themes that have jumped out after a bit of time to reflect.
Google Gets Education And Learning: This was one of the real pleasant surprises from the GAFE Summit. When I submitted my presentation proposal on Celebrating Success Through Social Media, I actually didn’t even expect it to get a second look. I mean this was a conference about Google. I figured people would be “geeking out” over all that is Google. I should have known better the moment the acceptance email arrived. The sessions offered were about STUDENT LEARNING! Google Apps were simply seen as tools to empower and enhance that learning. And that’s right up my alley. Too often we get caught up on the technology and forget to focus on what’s important, the learning. But sessions like Digital Portfolios by Holly Clark and Sketchnoting by Brad Ovenell-Carter showed me that learning was at the forefront. The technology was merely a tool, no more valuable than a pencil or hammer. It is in the leveraging of these tools that the magic of learning was magnified exponentially.
The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades: One of the things I came away with was the realm of possibility that exists in education today. And while it’s not really accurate to say the “future” looks bright (it’s already here!), the GAFE Summit was an excellent opportunity to see what was possible in education when we effectively leverage the tool of technology. For example, Holly Clark’s session on Digital Portfolios really had me excited about a system where a child’s learning could be documented and curated for the entire K - 12 journey. I got goose bumps at the thought of sending our West Langley grade 7s to the neighbouring high school with a website that celebrates their learning during their 8 years with us. And even more excited about the thought of a graduate student being ready to apply for post-secondary or the workforce with a digital resume ready to go.
“Dark Clouds” Are Opportunities: I have to thank Dave Shortreed for this one. In the session I was presenting, we were discussing our province’s Freedom of Information, Personal Privacy Act legislation and I described it as a “dark cloud” when it comes to leveraging social media to celebrate our schools. Dave pointed out that in his situation, he has been using FIPPA as an opportunity to discuss with students, staff and parents the importance of security, privacy and the digital tattoo that our kids are creating everyday. That was an important paradigm shift for me. I have spent much of my energy being annoyed (for lack of a better word) at the wall FIPPA can create in leveraging technology. But instead, I need to embrace it as a chance to implement technology in a way that makes everyone comfortable so they can all benefit from the power of this tool.
My Name Is Shawn and I’m a Disruptive Educator: Okay, well maybe that is a bit of a stretch. I would hardly call myself a disruptive educator, but after attending Holly Clark’s session on Digital Portfolios and listening to Yong Zhao’s inspirational keynote, I felt even more strongly about my sense that education needs “different” and not “better.” Those who know me, know that I am a ‘ready, fire, aim’ kind of person. And I’m more excited about the possibilities of what technology can do to empower learning than the actual destination. And during the weekend, the things Holly and Yong were describing about innovation were exactly some of the things we are currently implementing or would like to implement at West Langley. It was really empowering to know that I am at least on the path to being one of those disrupters in education that will truly change a system in need of an overhaul.
My Name Is Shawn and I’m Also Tech Geek: So apparently I really am a bit of a geek. I think deep down I alway knew that, but thanks to Jennie Mageira, I finally had to admit it. I’ve said this a few times in describing what happened to me at the Vancouver GAFE Summit when it comes to the power of Google … before, I thought I was only scratching the surface in my use of Google Apps, but I’m not even in the water yet. There is so much depth to this tool to make learning powerful for students and workflow exponentially more efficient for educators. I sat through two sessions and a keynote continually having my mind blown by what Google Apps like Forms, Calendar and different scripts could do to make learning authentic for students, connect them to the world around them, all while giving me more time by creating an efficient workflow. I’m not sure if a “tech crush” is actually a real thing, but I may have had my first. Thanks Jennie! I know I’ll be Gettin’ Scripty With It in the very near future.
I want to pass along a sincere thank you to MC, Ken Shelton and the entire EdTechTeam for organizing a great event. It was a powerful weekend of learning and connecting. I would strongly urge anyone who has a GAFE Summit coming to their area to attend. They put on a great weekend full of laughs and learning. And a huge thank you to Mulgrave School. You were excellent hosts for this event. I really enjoyed chatting with the teachers from the school who attended. You hospitality was appreciated.
I’m already looking forward to next year’s Vancouver GAFE Summit!