9 Tips To Getting the Most Out of a Conference

(Note: this article is cross-posted at Edudemic.com)

Having just wrapped up a successful iPadpalooza and seeing all the chatter around ISTE 2014 online, I wondered: what makes a memorable and meaningful conference experience?

At iPadpalooza, we had 98.4% of people tell us they would come back to our event next year. Rather than being happy about that number, I focused on what the 1.6% didn’t like. Was the live music too loud? Were the speakers or presentations not what the attendee expected?

I used to be guilty of attending conferences and passively waiting for information or presentations to amaze me. I’d leave disappointed and wonder what attending these conferences would mean for me in the future. However, all of that changed when I started taking a more proactive approach to my conference experience. Here are a few steps to help anyone attending either their 1st or 50th event.

Prior to the Event

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Me on stage before the closing event at iPadpalooza

Laying a good foundation of prep work prior to attending a conference on the scale of ISTE or the variety of something like iPadpalooza can make huge a difference.

1. Find Some People to Follow - This doesn’t mean cyber-stalk or physically tail someone during the event. Rather, look at the big name speakers or presenters and start to follow their work on social media. This will give you a flavor of their presentation-style and may indicate what kind of content they might offer during their sessions.

2. Identify sessions ahead of time – Looking at the program guide for the first time at the registration booth puts you at a disadvantage. Most events (especially Ed Tech ones) post their session titles and descriptions well in advance. Take that opportunity to do some early research on topics that interest you and areas that you want to improve upon professionally. Additionally as popular sessions can fill up quickly, always have a back-up plan.

3. Plan on giving yourself time between sessions – George Couros blogged about a conference in Australia that left 30 minutes in between sessions. While that’s a great way to have time in your schedule, most events only allow for 15 minutes or so. When planning out your days, be sure to leave a couple of longer breaks throughout the day. This extra time will allow you to reflect on a session or connect with colleagues and maybe actually have a professional lunch that is longer than 30 minutes.

During The Event

4. Don’t sit in sessions you don’t want to be in – EdCamps have mastered this strategy by the “voting with your feet” way that they run their events. If you are “stuck” in a 2-hour workshop on the theory of how Disney’s Frozen can be applied to advanced Physics, you either didn’t research the workshop well enough or the description was completely off (First clue – it was called “Let it Go: Why Liquid Nitrogen is the Bomb”) Don’t be afraid to walk out to your back-up session. If that one is full, find a quiet place where you can observe and follow the conference hashtag. At least that way you might pick up on some great things shared at other sessions.

5. Meet somebody new and connect – The easy way to do this is to have some virtual introductions via social media before-hand and then approach them when you see them in person (assuming their social media avatar looks like them). The more challenging, and sometimes more interesting way to do this, would be to find an attendee sitting by themselves and just introduce yourself. You never know how their story may help inspire you in the long run and vice-versa.

6. Capture your thoughts and reflect daily – I like to blog about the things that I have learned at conferences. This isn’t so much to share with others as it is for me to identify the things that I found valuable in my learning each day. Not a blogger? Use a tool like Storify to capture bits and pieces of a hashtag and make your own recap with others’ social media posts.

After The Event

7. Go back and share what you learned – As teachers, we know that our students learn by doing. Therefore, take what you learned and teach someone else. The blog that I mentioned in step #6 is a great way to share what you learned. For the slightly more daring, ask to have some time at an upcoming faculty meeting to give your 5-minute Ignite-type talk about highlights of your learning to the whole staff.

8. Follow-up with attendees and presenters online – Now that you’ve made some connections with new people from the event, be sure to send a message in the weeks afterwards to strengthen that connection.

9. Blackmail yourself – Learning new and inspiring ideas at an event can be great momentum going into the beginning of the school year. However, often weeks or months pass before you even get the motivation to apply something you’ve learned and by then you are too tired with the day-to-day of school life. Rather than blow it off, blackmail yourself. Outwardly tell colleagues (online or in person) that you are going to try a new concept that you learned. Then, set a time when you are actually going to try it and publicize this as well. I like to send myself an email in the future using futureme.org or the like. Setting up that email immediately after the event ends and can immediately reignite you months later.

These steps or tips are not fool-proof, and they do require a bit of heavy lifting on the part of the normally passive conference attendee. But, if you apply some – or all of these steps – you’ll find yourself not only enjoying conferences more but also sharing that joy with other colleagues and students down the road.

Kevin Honeycutt rocking the closing of iPadpalooza

Kevin Honeycutt rocking the closing of iPadpalooza

The APPMazing Race: A Great Way to Increase Collaboration and Learning at an Event

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 1.19.08 PMThis year at iPadpalooza we were looking to do something a little different with all that “transition” time in between sessions. Often times, when you attend a conference, you find yourself in complete session-mode. You rush from session to session, never taking time to reflect, interact or collaborate with others at the event.

And so, the APPMazing Race was born. When the team at iPadpalooza started brainstorming ideas, the thought of some sort of app-based Olympics was being passed around. Last year, we did an Aurasma scavenger hunt to get people interacting with their space. It was a great time-filler but was purely for individuals. Inventing a challenge based on teamwork would make the actual event even more meaningful was the hope. We ended up with 47-teams of 3 to 4 players signing up for the race by the end of the opening keynote. At midnight of the first day, they received their instructions of what they had to accomplish in the next 36 hours.

Unscheduled Challenges:
1. CREATE – A logo and team name for your team
2. LISTEN – Create a 15-20 second audio podcast that summarizes your favorite session. (background music/sound effects for a bonus point)
3. CONNECT – One team member must make a new friend from somewhere else (not on their team) and find 3 things they have in common. Create a Thinglink to represent your new friend and the 3 things you have in common. (Bonus point for finding someone from a different state or country)
4. SNEAK – A team member photo-bombs an Eanes iVenger (hint: they will be wearing red crew shirts on Wednesday) Clarification: A proper photo bomb is when someone sneaks into a photo from behind.
5. CAPTURE – Take 5 selfies with vendors and post to Instagram with hashtag #iplza14 and your team name. Capture all 5 for final submission video. 1 point per selfie.
6. EAT – Create a Canva poster based on your favorite food item from the food trucks.
7. DRAW – Using a drawing app, create your best caricature of another team member.
8. CHALLENGE – Create and post a Vine of a team member asking a presenter a question. (please don’t interrupt a session just for this – that could result in a deduction)
9. OUTREACH – Connect with someone over FaceTime who is not at the event and show them around. Take a screenshot that displays evidence you are here.
10.SHARE – Upload and share your final video submission somewhere visible on the web. Your final video must be no longer than 2 minutes.

We  also had two scheduled challenges from 3:30-4:30 in the main room of iPadpalooza on Day 2 where the teams had to complete these -
1. DRIVE – Control a Sphero through an obstacle course. 5 attempts per team. Bonus points to the top 3 teams that take the shortest time to complete the challenge.
2. SMASH – Create an Appsmash LIVE during the day 2 closing activity. Theme of the smash will be given at 3:30. You must smash as many apps as you have team members +1 (so a team of 4 must smash 5 apps).

Bonus points we possible for teams with evidence of the top tweets and creativity of final video submission. While we could have just made it a checklist of items and drawn names out of a hat, we decided instead to judge their final submissions. Rather than fact check every item, the 2-minute video was the proof teams had to submit to at noon prior to the closing.

We had an amazing 18 teams complete the challenge and many were made up of people from completely different districts. In retrospect I would have loved to given every finishing team an award, but we ended up just awarding the top three prizes. Here is what the winning video submission looked like from Team “FargoFromDownUnder Appletes”

While there are always areas to improve, this race was successful in bringing colleagues together (either from the same district or even different countries) to engage and collaborate with an event rather than just being an passive participant.  We look forward to even more teams competing next year and know now that the bar has been raised!

Official APPMazing Race Rules & Challenges 2014 PDF

What iPadpalooza 2014 Meant to Me #iplza14

One of my last "Views from a DJ booth" photos

One of my last “Views from a DJ booth” photos

Planning a wedding is tough.  As a (somewhat) retired wedding DJ, I have seen all the good and the bad of a wedding.  From a bride’s father refusing to walk his daughter down the isle to a drunken uncle “mic-bombing” the reception, it’s a celebration of life while coupled with an undercurrent of stress.

Now take that and multiple it by 37, lose your voice and you have my experience at this year’s iPadpalooza. It was all the fun mixed with all the stress.  Only instead of obstinate fathers we had some amazingly inventive teams of teachers in our first ever APPmazing race.  We had our own drunken mic-bombing uncle close out the show (only without the drunk part) in the ever-entertaining and inspiring Kevin Honeycutt.  All of this and my voice never fully made its way back from a weekend cold which made things madly frustrating at times for me.

This was our third year of the ‘palooz and we tried to continue to make it not only a happening event but also one where learning was fun and at the center of everything.  Last year’s keynote of Sir Ken Robinson was very much the highlight of the  2013 event. While it’s great to have one-of-a-kind keynote speakers, making this event different than others is the experience around it.  From the food trucks to the live music to the wide variety of speakers from all over the world (including our new friends Janelle and Terry from Australia!), making the experience innovative is always the toughest challenge to event organizers.

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My attempt at a “Vendor Rap” without a voice

Like any other innovation or invention, we got some parts right and we failed on some others. Regardless, the feedback from attendees has been OVERWHELMINGLY positive with more than 98% saying they would return next year, which speaks volumes to the success of this year’s event. Here are some highlights from both my perspective and from those of that sent in feedback.

New additions this year:

APP-mazing Race -

Whenever I attend an event or conference, there are times where I feel like I could and should be a little more active in my learning.  The APPmazing Race was born out of the idea that we have a lot of “minutia” that we could be utilizing. (such a great idea I hear Pearson used it at ISTE a week later). I also feel like at times we don’t make a point of getting to know others and instead just talk to those in our inner-circle or Twitter PLN.  The APPMazing Race was a chance for 3-4 person teams to complete a series of challenges in a 36-hour period starting at Midnight on the first night.  While we may have shot a little far on our series of app-based challenges, we did have 18 teams complete the race which far exceeded our initial expectations.  In the end it was a couple of Minnesotans joining forces with two Aussies to create the winning team “FargoFromDownUnder Appletes” each of whom when home with an HD iPad Mini and a great story to share. Blog coming soon with more details on how we did this.

Youth Film Festival -

Without a doubt, the youth film festival film screening at Alamo Drafthouse on the second night of iPadpalooza was my personal favorite moment from event, and not just because I was able to take my wife and oldest daughter along with me. Keeping with last year’s theme of creativity, we decided to join forces with Pflugerville ISD film guru Humberto Perez to create our first every youth film festival.  Much like the APPmazing race, the film festival wasn’t without it’s set of challenges, but in the end, we got to witness first-hand the joy of film-making from the minds of children of all ages.  The teams had only a few rules – create a 2-4 minute film using only an iOS device, make it have something to do with this year’s theme “UP” and put a balloon in it as a prop.  The final results were magical and the winning team “Up, Up, and Away” was also the team that traveled the farthest (coming to us all the way from Illinois).  We can’t wait until next year’s event where we’re sure we’ll see the bar raised even higher after this year.

Kids on stage for the Youth Film Festival (credit: Richard Johnson)

On stage with the real stars of the show from the Youth Film Festival (credit: Richard Johnson)

iLead Academy -

Leadership in any type of mobile-device initiative is vital to its success. While iPadpalooza offers many learning opportunities for leaders, it’s still teacher-focused at its heart. We created the iLead Academy as an opportunity to get like-minded leaders in the same room hoping to make change happen on their campuses.  We mixed in a variety of world-renown speakers, expert panels and activities focused around the 4C’s.  Having an opportunity the hear from so many inspiring leaders, much like the kids from the film festival, really reminded me of what this is all about.

Expert Lounge & Human Library -

With all of these great speakers and variety of expertise in one place, it would be a shame not to at least have 5-10 minutes with them in 1:1 conversation.  For those buffer times in the schedule, we created a “human library” where you could check out an expert in a field and sit down and have a conversation to help with your growth and learning. We hope to expand and advertise this much more next year as feedback from those that attended these times was extremely positive.

Challenges

One of the goals of iPadpalooza is to really focus attention on the attendees and make their experience an enjoyable one so that learning can happen more freely.  Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we get it wrong.  Here are a couple of areas we’ll focus on improving next year:

Schedule -

I tried a “staggered” schedule much like that of a movie theater instead of the standard 60-minute session/15-minute break approach.  The idea was to leave some wider gaps in between sessions and to cut back on traffic flow.  Based on attendee feedback, this was either loved or hated.  Add to that the limitations of our Sched app and there were times people got up and walked out of a session because they didn’t know another was starting a few minutes later. We also tried an evening keynote on the night before the event with the thinking that many people would be in town anyway for the next day.  Sadly, many people missed this because they didn’t schedule to come in until the first full day. Next year, we’ll look at keeping some of those wide gaps but possibly syncing up more of the session starting times, we’ll move the keynotes back to the daytime and improve (or likely change) the scheduling app.

Out of retirement for day 3! Views from the DJ booth

Out of retirement for day 3! Views from the DJ booth

Music – 

With a couple of last minute cancellations, our music this year was a mix of good and bad.  At one point I even came out of retirement to spin the 1’s and 2’s as a morning DJ.  While we had an eclectic mix of music, next year we’ll look to keep that flavor but possible have it either in a different area or possible turn the sound down on the amps so people can enjoy conversation and music at the same time.

Old Fave’s

Food Trucks -

Having an event with “personalized eating” when it comes to food trailers is still very much part of the fun experience of this learning festival and very much an attendee favorite.

Session diversity -

This year we had sessions from “I fear I’m becoming a Tree-hugging Hippie” to “Guilty Pleasures…Apps You Just Can’t Delete.”  There were presenters from all over the U.S. and beyond bringing their own unique perspectives to learning with mobile devices. We had a little something for every attendee out there and can bet that we’ll increase on that diversity next year. We’ll be adding both a “Poster-Session” option for presenters and  possibly a 15-minute “TED-style” option for talks in short bursts in a certain area of the event.

Keynotes -

Sugata Mitra and Kevin Honeycutt provided the perfect bookend speakers for this year’s event.  Both spoke about the ideas behind global outreach and also brought us back to core of why we are here…kids.  Like Sir Ken last year, they’ll be tough acts to follow, but we already have some interesting leads already in the works!

Sneak Peak toward 2015

While I won’t spill all the goods on next year’s event, I’ve already alluded to the fact we’ll see some different types of session offerings, a change in our keynote structure, and improvements on the APPmazing Race and Youth Film Festival.  We’ll also likely keep our old faves of live music and food trucks in place. I know that not every innovative and “weird” idea will work next year. Like a wedding, there will be all sorts of magical moments happening throughout the event (only hopefully without the tears). What I can guarantee people walking “down the isle” of iPadpalooza will experience something they can’t get anywhere else…and learn a thing or two along the way.

Come to Austin June 23-25, 2015 and say “I do”.

Here’s a word-cloud of all the 1-word answers attendees used to describe this year’s event:

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Here are some other blogs and articles about the event from local news and attendees:

iPad Convention Trains Teachers from Around the World - Austin American-Statesman

Top 10 Things I Learned at iPadpalooza – Summer Len Diamond

Inspired by iPadpalooza Visual Notetaking - Wes Fryer

iPadpalooza 2014 Highlights - Mathy Cathy

The New Bogeyman: The Internet?

Jaws_(5530370622)Like most kids, when I was young I held some irrational fears.  I was pretty sure any unseen thing that brushed against my leg in the ocean was Jaws. Whenever I saw a slobbery St. Bernard, I was convinced it had rabies and was going to attack me. And for some reason, even to this day, I hold an unnatural fear of clowns.  But no fear captivated me more than the fear of the bogeyman.

When I went to camp I would hear all the stories about how if you didn’t behave, the bogeyman will come and take you away (usually in a van with no windows). He was a dark, hairy, creepy man that smelled of a foul odor. Kind of a satanic, hippy-like grim reaper of kid justice if you will.  That was a pretty obvious (and evil) trick played by parents to make their kids behave.  (No judgment here as I’ve told my kids some similar things in moments of frustration).  However, this sort of nondescript being called the bogeyman still seemed to keep me up at night. Tall. Dark. Shadowy.  And he always seemed to come in the window or live under the bed.

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Now a days there’s a new bogeyman and he lives on the internet.  His name is “Slender Man” and if you haven’t heard about him yet, you probably will by the end of this weekend. While his tale has been online for several years, it’s now only recently being brought to light following the actions of these 12-year old girls.  It’s a sad, tragic tale about a bogeyman story going too far but  the crazy thing is, the person that will tell you the most about him is probably an unlikely source…your children.

Much like those stories at camp, kids pass stories and urban legends to each other as sort of a sadistic right of passage into teenage years.

“If you say Bloody Mary’s name in the mirror 3 times and turn off the light, she’ll appear and attack you.”

“Don’t cross your eyes, because if you do and someone slaps you on the back, you’ll stay that way.”

“Did you ever hear the story about the two teenagers who were driving in the woods and escape death from the one-arm hooked psychopath?”

All of these stories are fed by our fears.  Now we have an all-you-can-eat buffet feeding these fears even faster and more anonymously….the Internet.   The difference between now and then is,  instead of hearing inflection or seeing a slight smirk on someone’s face as they try to scare you to death, the internet is as faceless as the bogeyman rumors they are trying to spread.

So what’s a parent to do?  My wife’s first reaction is one I find most typical in parents faced with something new and terrible online:

photo

 

As a parent, when you hear stories as tragic as the one around the Slender Man, your gut reaction is to hold your babies even tighter.  In this case, lock the doors, bar the windows, and turn off the internet. That’s a primal reaction that dates back to when we were cavemen and we would hear a growl in the woods. There is NOTHING wrong with that instinct and reaction.

However, while taking away the internet may seem like a great solution to the problem, it actually focuses your energy as a parent on the wrong bogeyman.  True, the internet can spread these stories faster than you can keep up with them as parents. True, anyone can really say anything online with little consequence.  I mean, look at Charlie Sheen.  But in all seriousness, taking that away doesn’t help your child learn.

The reason why I had those irrational fears as a kid was because of the movies I was watching and my lack of ability to disconnect reality from fiction. My parents and I had long discussions (usually after I crawled into their bed faking a stomach ache) about what was real and what wasn’t.  In our world, with or without the internet, we must constantly make judgments.  About food. About people. About situations. The fact this is a newer medium then when we were kids doesn’t make it any worse, just different.

The bottom line with all of this is we as parents need to have continual conversations with our kids about life.  The ability to hold constant mini-conversations with our kids via text messages may make us feel more connected than we ever were with our parents.  But it also gives us the false impression that we truly know our kids.   That we truly know what they are up to and who they are hanging out with.

In that sense the true bogeyman isn’t a shark.  It isn’t a rabid dog.  It isn’t a tall, thin man with long wavy arms called Slender Man (“he’s like something out of a Guillermo Del Toro movie”  my clever wife quipped). And I’m sorry to say, the true bogeyman isn’t the internet.

The true bogeyman are those small moments with our kids that have escaped us as we were busy doing something else (like writing a blog).  It’s those little rips in the fabric of our relationships that we choose to ignore as they grow and fray.  It’s all those times we wanted to have a hard conversation with our kids but didn’t want to upset them or make them think we weren’t friends.

You see, the true bogeyman it turns out is in the mirror…only you don’t have to say its name 3 times to make it appear.

Testifying at the Texas Capitol

photo 4 (1)This “off-season” in the Texas legislature brings about a chance for both House and Senate members to gather information and intel for the upcoming session in 2015. On the House side, Public Education committee members are gathering information to review, repeal, and possibly replace the current method of administering teacher evaluations.  That was the not-so-hidden agenda presented to me a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to give testimony on innovative teaching and learning from the viewpoint of a 1:1 school.

Now, I’ve done all manner of public speaking in my life from being a keynote speaker to dressing up like a zombie, I really enjoy engaging a crowd.  I don’t get nervous or stage fright like I probably should in those situations.  Testifying was definitely an exception to that rule.  While I was extremely honored and grateful to have the opportunity to speak, I was nervous beyond belief.  Not only did I have a whole set of verbiage to learn (“Mr. Chairman, members of the the committee, etc) but I was also on a 10-minute time limit.  Those of you that know me know that I can speak fast so my goal was to cram about 20 minutes worth of content into those 10 minutes without being completely incomprehensible.

Those intimidating tables!

Those intimidating tables!

Adding to those nerves was the actual physical set-up of the room.  I don’t know how many of you have had to give testimony or speak at a Board meeting, but that set-up can be intimidating.  I was sitting at table with 3 other witnesses looking up toward a wall of tables that greatly mimicked “The Wall” from Game of Thrones in my mind.   This gave the committee members a distinct strategic advantage in terms of having the higher ground and vantage point to any argument.

I had all sorts of crazy ideas for my testimony as a way to stand-out (Zombie costume or take over their iPads somehow came to mind first) . However, in the end, I felt it most important to speak clearly on our 1:1, the changes we’ve seen in learning and teaching, and the fact that professional learning is so valuable with these changes.  Here’s a link to the entire testimony (I’m in the first hour and a half or so).

I did decide to auto-tweet my testimony since my notes were written on keynote slides (I had been advised to avoid “reading” my testimony).   While I got no response from the panel at the auto-tweet remark, I did actually get Rep. Donna Howard (D) to tweet at me which I took as an early win.

As for the testimony itself, I was fast but seemed to get the story of my district across.  I was extremely thankful to see a friendly face, our Superintendent Dr. Nola Wellman, walk in minutes before I took the stand.  Once I started speaking a strange calm washed over me.  I realized as they moved to the next panelist, that this was a great opportunity to speak my mind about what’s been bothering me about the way the state handles public education.  If you don’t want to watch the entire testimony, here’s a few of the points I tried to make:

The Autopsy that is standardized testing

I actually got quoted by the local NPR affiliate for this one, when asked about whether or not state standardized tests should count towards a teachers evaluation, I cautioned the committee that course of action is “dangerous.”  My rational being, you are judging that teacher using one metric that is essential an autopsy of what they learned, not only that year from that teacher, but the teacher prior to that and prior to that and so on. This isn’t a new idea among many of us, but thought it was a good opportunity to get that out in the open.

“Bottom Kids”

When Rep. Harold Dutton mentioned in his cross testimony of Andrew Kim about whether or not project-based learning worked for “bottom kids” I started stewing. Our culture is so ingrained with the idea of ranking individuals that we now use nomenclature that demeans those struggling students right out of the gate by calling them “bottom kids.”  I went on a mini-rant about how we as society need stop the competitive nature of state-testing in our world as it really benefits no one. (note: Rep. Dutton would later go on to apologize for using that phrase)

Evaluating in Isolation

Near the end of our time on the panel, Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock took the opportunity to ask us our opinion on how teachers should be evaluated. There was unanimous agreement among the panel that the focus should shift from the “Dog & Pony” show of teacher-led lectures to encompass more of a 360 view of the classroom and what are the kids doing. As an appraiser you should be not only ask kids what they are learning but also ask them to demonstrate their learning. My main beef with traditional teacher evaluations is the idea that we all should teach in silos (an idea that’s made even worse when  you throw in performance-based pay). There are no metrics out there that truly measure teamwork, but having items on a evaluation that encourage collaboration among peers would be valuable to break from the approach of teaching in isolation.

Parents evaluating teachers?

One of the more interesting questions was the final one – Should parents be able to evaluate teachers?  This question prompted my “mic drop” (although it was more of a “mic shove” if you watch the video)

When asked the question, here was my response:

“I have no problem at all with parents evaluating teachers….as long as teachers can evaluate parents.” (mic shove)

photo 1 (1)

Registration kiosks for those speaking

Opportunity strikes

This whole experience was very eye-opening for me and it has raised some extra questions in my mind that I’d love for some of my fellow bloggers or followers to reply to.  Please comment below to one or all of these questions:

1. If you had 10 minutes to present in front of Congress, what would you talk about and why?

2. If you could remake teacher evaluations, what would you do differently?

3. Have you ever had a time in your life when you were given the opportunity to say something, but didn’t?

I’d be curious to hear your responses and invite you to help add to my testimony.

I promise not only that I’ll listen, but that I won’t be staring down at you from a tall desk.

Digital Zombie Series: Invisible Cell Phone Shields

In the movie Harry Potter, one of the most fantastical moments happens when Harry receives his invisibility cloak, passed down from his father. It was a powerful moment in those movies and a tool that Harry would utilize many times over in the following films to help get him in and out of trouble.

SJ when he first thought of Smartphones...

SJ when he first thought of Smartphones…

While this magic may seem like fiction, I have news for you. Most of us now harness the power of invisibility in the palm of our hands.  My wife and I began to refer to the magic of what we called the “Invisible Cell Phone Shield”, or ICPS, back before smartphones were even a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye.  I remember my first encounter with this phenomenon back in 2004.

I had recently purchased what I then described to my wife as “the last cell phone I’ll ever own” —the Motorola RAZR.  It was so cool and slick and shiny and even looked like it could be some sort of weapon.   At any rate, we were waiting for a friend outside of a University of Texas basketball game who was supposed to bring us some tickets.  Texting wasn’t really wide-spread at the time so I was stuck with this RAZR attached to my head trying to get a hold of him.  We wandered around outside the arena for about 20 minutes, my wife’s foot tapping impatiently with every passing minute.

At that moment, I captured my first glimpse of the power of invisibility.  As I wandered over by the “Player Will Call” door, phone still firmly planted on my ear and a furrowed brow across my face, the door magically opened.  An usher, seeing my stress and now doubt high-status phone had surmised that we must be trying to get in.  However, rather than bother me with a question like “can I see your tickets?” he instead let us wander right in through the back door and practically onto the court.

When we got inside my wife looked at me in dismay and said, “what just happened?”  I didn’t have an answer for her, but somehow we were now sitting court-side at a basketball game in seats we had no business being in.  We both began to get nervous.  I called my friend again. No response.  The game was about to start.  An usher, looked in our direction and started walking toward us.  Carefully and purposefully, I picked up my phone and placed it on my ear.  This time, I acted like I was in a deep conversation.  The usher approached, paused for a moment, then moved on with a sort of dumb-founded look on his face.  It worked again!!

One place ICPS didn't work...

One place ICPS didn’t work…

After tip-off we were able to finally locate our friend and go to our actual seats, but that moment stuck in both of our heads.  What was this witchcraft that made us invisible?  Could it work anywhere else?  (short answer- no, something I would find out the following year when I tried to use it to sneak into the 2005 National Championship game)

We had discovered a secret power this mobile technology held.  It made us not only somewhat invisible, but also protected us from harm or questioning.  It was the Invisible Cell Phone Shield and it was a great thing to behold.

That was 10 years ago. Today, you see this ICPS as common place throughout modern society.  People walking down the street, holding the phone up to their ear to avoid real conversation.  Hanging out near a grocery store exit around Girl Scout cookie time is a great time to watch this phenomenon in action.  Even the Girl Scouts can’t seem to penetrate its defenses.  Common waiting areas like bus stops, elevators, doctor’s offices, etc seem to also have a case of widespread ICPS.   I even witnessed our beloved former UT football coach Mack Brown using the Invisible Cell Phone Shield recently when I saw him walking through the airport.

What started out as a magical tool, a cloak that could help me get in and out of trouble, has now become a means of social isolation.  It has become a necessity when going out into the world and mixing in public places with strangers.  And now that these are all smartphones (update: the RAZR was not the last phone I ever bought) it seems as if we don’t even have to press the device to our ear to gain the power of invisibility.

This video called “Look up” was released recently and has gone viral on social media (ironic considering the content).

In the video the author demonstrates a situation where he chose to make himself invisible and in doing so, misses the opportunity to interact with the future love of his life. While I think this is an extreme example of how too connected/not connected we are as a society, it demonstrates perfectly what’s happened to this once magical power.  It’s almost like Harry got the cloak, put it on, and never took it off again, especially when it came to being a crowd of strangers.

So my new challenge for all of the world is not to just go out and be ‘visible’ by detaching yourself from your phone.  Instead, I challenge you to break someone’s Invisible Cell Phone Shield and actually interact with them.   It will seem uncomfortable and almost like an invasion of privacy. But it isn’t.  You’ll probably get a perplexed look that says “can’t you see I’m on the phone?” or “seriously, I’m texting someone now, why are you bothering me?”  but I encourage you to fight against this disease that I once considered magic.

After all, you never know who you might meet….

My #selfie w/Mack after I broke his ICPS

My #selfie w/Mack after I broke his ICPS

 

 Note: This post is the fourth installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.

Digital Parenting 101: An iTunesU Course For Parents

digitalparentlogo

Digital Parenting iTunesU course

Part of having any type of success in a school is to have the support of parents.  While some schools can overcome a lack of parent involvement or support, most depend on the idea that “it takes a village” to raise a child.  The same is true of any successful mobile device initiative.  I’ve had over 50 talks/discussions/trainings with community members and parents in our district since the launch of the LEAP iPad Initiative in Fall of 2011, and that’s still not enough.

We’ve hosted panels of parents discussing their concerns and values with technology use.  We’ve brought in experts on cyber-bullying and internet safety.  We’ve even had back-to-school nights where we’ve invited parents to see and use the device as a child in the classroom would.

Knowledge is a powerful thing and lately, many parents are looking for more and more materials on what to avoid online, what to turn off and restrict, and how to help “stay ahead” of their kids digitally.  The hard truth is parents will never be able to stay ahead of their kids digitally.  Kids have more time and much less responsibility on their hands which means they can spend their free time trying to figure out ways to “game” the system and push limits.

As parents, our job has never been so important, but at the same time, so challenging.  We must now manage the lives of our actual kids and the virtual life they portray online.  One of my darkest moments during our 1:1 initiative was also one of my finest hours.  Following a highly attended parent orientation, I was encircled by about a dozen angry parents asking why we were “doing this to them.”  In their worlds, they (thought) they had control over screen-time, online behavior, obsessive gaming, etc.  Now the district has placed a device in the hand of every student and completely disrupted that well-maintained home life.

As the parents pointed their fingers angrily and voiced their frustrations over this disruption…a strange smile crept over my face.

“HOW CAN YOU BE SMILING?!?” they shouted.

My answer was simple, “I’m actually happy we are having this discussion right here, right now, when we can all do something about it.” I calmly stated. “In a few years, when your child has left for college, there is nothing I can do to help them with their digital lives.  But because they all have devices from our district, we can now join forces with parents to better educate our students.  After all, we aren’t raising children.  We are raising adults.”

Flash-forward a couple of years to this past spring.  While parent turn-out at “Digital Parent nights” and various other events were good, we were still missing a large chunk of parents who couldn’t attend due to their own schedule.  We decided to LiveStream several of these events, which helped with exposure, but I wasn’t sure we were really reaching those parents struggling to “keep up” with their kids.

After much bantering on my part, I finally decided to blackmail myself and set a date by which parents could sign up and be a part of an online course for digital parenting.  Publishing that date and sign up forced me to create the course, hence “blackmailing myself.”

I created the course in iTunesU and did so for a couple of reasons:

itunes U_edited-1

1. iTunesU is super-easy to manage.  The only time consuming part is gathering content and resources.

2. I wanted the parents to use their student’s iPad if possible to take the course. This helped model some of the educational expectations of the device at home.

So, on February 17th, I launched a 6-week iTunesU course titled: Digital Parenting 101.  I broke the course into 6 sections and rolled out content each week to parents that were enrolled in the course (I ended up with 43 parents enrolled). My sections were broken out into the following categories:

Week 1 – Digital Wellness in the 21st Century

Week 2 – Internet Safety, filters, restrictions & security

Week 3 – Screen time & the Brain

Week 4 – Social Media & Gaming

Week 5 – Guidelines for the Household

Week 6 – Building a Digital Footprint

At the end of each week’s content (designed to take 2-3 hours a week), I gave a brief 10-question quiz to check for understanding.  Parents that scored 80% or higher were emailed a ‘secret code’ that they would use to enter in the final exam to prove they completed each section.   In addition, I used a free platform called Moot.it to create a discussion forum for Q&A and to stimulate some discussion over the weekly topics.

All in all, the course went very well, but still needs some room for improvement.  I’ve asked the “students” in the course to email me feedback and will use that to craft the next course I offer in the fall.

That said, I’ve been asked by several colleagues to share the course with the public.  So, with a little iTunesU magic, I duplicated the course, removed the links to the private forums, and made it public for anyone to use.  I share this backstory and course with you in the hopes that you’ll continue to work with parents on educating them about their children’s digital future.  I also find a course like this strengthens the bond between school and parent in collectively raising their child.

Enjoy!

Eanes ISD Digital Parenting 101: iTunesU Course

Digital Zombie Series: “Notifistraction” Disease

Original Image here: http://goo.gl/XNgMhR

Original Image here: http://goo.gl/XNgMhR

Since the beginning of time, man has always had an innate sense of alertness.  In our primitive self, that alertness was used to make us aware of dangers around us.  Imagine it – you are hunting and gathering food when all the sudden, you happen upon a pond with fresh water.  You bend over to quench your thirst or possibly fill a jug with water for your family, when all of the sudden you hear a twig…

SNAP!!

You turn and look for what blood-crazed beast might be approaching you.  It turns out to be a smaller creature…like a squirrel (Look! Squirrel!).  Following  your expience with the varmint, you travel cautiously back to your cave having survived certain death.  When you arrive home to your wife and kids you discover that you left your jug full of water behind.  “What were you thinking?” she might ask (although back then it might be more like a series of grunts).  Your response would be simply “Ah dunno” (which in modern times still sounds like a series of grunts).

The truth is, you were distracted.  Your brain refocused attention and energy toward survival and alertness.  In that moment, you forgot the water jug and simply returned home.  To set this more in modern times, have you ever gone into a room to look for something and then something else caught your eye or someone asked you a question at which point you forget why you are in the room? You might even travel back into the original room to sort of mentally “retrace” your steps and try and figure out why you were going into a certain room.

I know I’ve probably paid hundreds of dollars in wasted electricity staring into the refrigerator pondering why I went there in the first place.  By our very nature, we are victims of distraction.  Distraction causes our brain to alter their original course of action whenever a new stimulus is produced.  Some of us have become quite acute at managing this and claim to be multitaskers (a theory that is seemingly debunked weekly).  Others have figured out ways to block out distraction when working on a task.

Enter the era of smartphones and notification alerts.  All the sudden, something as small and innocent as a beep or tweet causes us to lose focus on our task at hand.  I’m calling this “Notifistraction” (No-tis-fah-strac-shun) Disease, or the mash up of notifications and the distraction they cause.  Despite our best efforts to focus our brains still revert back to the stone age twig-snapping event whenever our devices alert us about something.

And that’s only part of it.  A local cyber-psychologist  here in Austin, Dr. Mike Brooks, says that we are becoming addicted to our alert notifications.  He states that we get small endorphin rushes to our brain whenever we get an alert notifying us that someone has connected with us.  This can be either mentioning us in a tweet, tagging us in a photo, or commenting on our YouTube video for example.  That connection creates endorphins which is subconsciously associated to the sound or sight of a notification alert.

Think of this rat in B.F. Skinner’s famous rat experiment on Operant Conditioning as a simple example of this conditioning.

A more modern example might be the feeling one gets when walking through a casino and listening to the slot machine make all sorts of bells and whistles to claim we have won something.  That same primitive level of satisfaction combined with our inability to control perfect focus when distracted make Notifistraction Disease another sign that the Digital Zombie Apocalypse is upon us.

Like everything else I’ve written in this series, I have had some level of personal challenges to overcome when it comes to notifistractions.  Recently, I was honored to receive a new Pebble watch as a going away present from my TEC-SIG presidency. Just like any new gizmo, I love the watch.  I can see my running times on it, can bring up the weather, and can even be notified when my washing machine is done with my clothes.  It uses the smartphone as sort of a “main frame” and just relays alerts to the watch.  Now I have notifistractions literally tethered to my body!

Now, as with Digital Yawns, the good news is there are some homeopathic cures out there for those of us suffering from Notifistraction Disease.  Here are some tools I’ve deployed personally to help me get through a project or just simply enjoy time with my kids and family without my attention being drawn else where. It’s already come in handy when we went on a recent family trip and I noticed that the airport had mis-tagged our car seats which would have sent them to a totally different city.  If my nose had been buried in my phone, I wouldn’t have caught that slip-up.

1. Turn Off Notification Alerts -

I have turned off all audio alerts except for text messages and phone calls.  While this might not seem like much of a sacrifice, at one point I was getting Foursquare alerts about how good of mileage Greg Garner made on a recent run.  Do I really need to know that? (he’s fast by the way)  My next step is turning off that little alert icon that appears on my apps as I don’t need to see the 999 unread email messages I might have.

2. Don’t Respond to Everything Right Away – 

I try not to respond or read alerts or social media while sitting in the car.  Notice I didn’t say “while driving”.  This is still a bit of a challenge, because, just like the Skinner rat, I sometimes want to know what someone is sending me.  Of course, with the new watch, I can see the alert on my wrist and just choose not to respond, but that’s still a distraction.

3. Employ the “Pomodoro Technique” -

The Pomodoro Kitchen timer

The Pomodoro Kitchen timer

When working on a project, I employ the “Pomodoro Technique“.  I have to give props to Lisa Johnson for sending this my way, but it’s a simple technique used to maintain focus throughout a project.  Here’s how it works.  You write down a goal or project that you need to work on.  Then you basically turn off all notifications, shut down email, turn off your phone, etc for a period of 25 minutes.  When the 25 minutes is up, you can take a break for 5 minutes to check email, social media, your clothes in the washing machine, etc but then you have to get back to work on the task for another 25 minute period.  I even employed this technique while writing this post!

Let’s face it, we’ve been distracted creatures for thousands of years, but it’s time we started managing those distractions and not letting them rule our lives. Do we really need to know when our washing machine is done?  The next time you suffer from Notifistraction Disease, ask yourself, is it really important that I get this alert on my phone?  You might find yourself being distracted by more pleasant things like nature and birds and…..squirrels!

Now….what was I saying?

 Note: This post is the third installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.

Digital Zombie Series: Can We Ever Be Alone Again?

My original avatar...very prophetic

My original avatar…very prophetic

Lately I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon that occurs at traffic lights around town.  The light turns green and the first car, after some hesitation, pulls forward.  Then the next one, after another prolongued delay, does the same.  This continues until maybe 4 or 5 cars have traveled through what would normally be a 10-12 car light.   When I look over at the drivers, they are all doing the same thing: checking their phones.

We’ve seen a lot of commentary on the web recently about our addiction to our phones.  Last week I wrote a post about the Digital Yawn, an event that seems to happen more and more in social settings.  This restaurant in Beirut actually gives you a 10% discount if you turn in your phone and socialize a their restaurant.  And for those of us that must remain connected, the city of Philadelphia implemented these texting and walking lanes near city hall so we don’t crash into each other.

NPR has released a couple of thought-provoking materials in recent months including this article that “We Are Just Not Here Anymore.”  In the article, the author Linton Weeks takes us through the concept of the “Severed Self” and asks the question, “how can we ever feel comfortable with others when we don’t even feel comfortable with ourselves?” He mentions a course at the University of Washington where a professor actually teaches his students patience, reflection and meditation by “unplugging” for a few minutes before class.

In September of 2013, NPR’s All Tech Considered site released a short film titled “Forgot My Phone” by videographer Charlene deGuzman.  It was meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but actually highlighted the fact that we aren’t really present unless we are connecting and documenting our lives on our devices.  I found myself both laughing and crying during the two minutes of this video.

Lastly, comedian Louis C.K. went on a comedic rant about cell phones on the Conan show. In his interview he mentions the fact that we can’t truly ever be alone and “be ourselves and just sit there.  Being a person.”  He goes on to say that “underneath everything, there’s that thing…you know…that empty.  That knowledge that we are all alone. It’s down there.”  While he’s a comedian, I think he’s waxing poetic about the fact that we can’t  let ourselves ever be truly happy or truly sad because we are constantly connected.

As educators (and parents) we need to work with kids (and ourselves) in balancing our lives in every way. We talk with them about eating right.  We talk with them about manners. We talk with them on how to behave in various situations. I’m going to argue it’s time we talk to them about when it’s ok not to connect.  When it’s ok to just “be”.

I’ve struggled with this personally as I’ve always felt my phone was an extension of my hand. Then, several months ago, one of my daughters told me, “daddy, can you put down your phone and pay attention to me?”  It broke my heart but also alerted me to a larger problem.  The message I was sending her then 4-year old mind was that the phone was more important to me than her.  I also found myself feeding our youngest daughter her bottle at night with one hand with my phone was in the other.  I was missing that magical moment of physical connection with her, because of my need to have a virtual one.

So I decided to change.

I started to enforce these 5 simple rules for myself:

1. When I get home, the phone gets plugged into the charger and that’s where it sits the whole night.

2. While the kids are awake, I don’t work, connect, tweet, blog, etc. I just spend time with my family.

3. When feeding the baby and getting her to go to sleep, no technology whatsoever.

4. After the kids are in bed, unless it’s a major project, I don’t work or tweet or blog.  I spend time with my wife watching a show (lately it’s been House of Cards) or washing dishes or cleaning up toys or just talking.

5. The phone stays downstairs, connected to the charger all night.  It doesn’t go into my bedroom.

Though I haven’t followed these rules every single day, I find them easy enough to maintain and actually find that I’m working a lot more efficiently because of my disconnection.  When feeding our youngest her bottle at night, I take the time to connect with her, but I also use that time as sort of “reflection meditation” if you will.  I reflect and evaluate my day.  I think about creative projects that I need to start or problems that I need to solve.

I discovered that I can just “be alone” digitally and the world will move along regardless.

So the next time you are at that traffic light or in that waiting room, hold off on taking out your phone and checking it even if it hurts. Instead, take a moment to breathe in life.

Reflect.

Think.

And just “be”.

Note: This post is the second installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.

Digital Zombie Series: The Digital Yawn

Coming off my SXSWedu presentation on “Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse” and subsequent MindShift article on how our brains are “changing” with societal changes, I thought I’d start a 5-part series of observations and tools to cope with this new digitally instant world.  Today’s post focuses on a trend I’ve been noticing as our phones become more and more smart.

“The Digital Yawn” 

You ever have that moment, where you experience something and are somewhat annoyed by it?  Better yet, have you ever actually participated in something and end up annoyed at yourself?

I’m one of those people that feels naked without their phone.  I used to think I was in the minority, but after my SXSW presentation, I think I’m now just part of the “in” crowd.  I experimented going digitally naked once and felt the experience strangely freeing and refreshing.  It’s kind of like carrying a heavy back pack full of essential things and then putting it down for a moment.  You know you need to pick it back up again but enjoy the break on your back muscles.

The other day, I was amongst a group of colleagues discussing work life and talking some mild business when it happened again.

That moment.

I was witnessing something I sensed was happening more and more in social circles (even in non-social ones). Here’s how it goes:

Everyone is standing or sitting around, having conversation when someone decides it’s time to check his phone.  Maybe it vibrated.  Maybe it flashed or blinked up some sort of notification, but he checked it. Then, almost without fail, someone else in the group decides to do the same thing.  Only, they likely weren’t notified or “pinged” for any reason.  They were merely mimicking the action of a group member doing the same thing.  Or maybe they took his actions as an opportunity to break from normal social maladies to check their own device.

Only it doesn’t stop there.  A third person takes this opportunity to check their device. Then a fourth. Then a fifth.  Eventually everyone is checking their phones.  This experience is what I’m calling the “Digital Yawn”.

Witness a Digital Yawn in captured in action

Witness a Digital Yawn in captured in action

Originally, I wanted to call it something more viral like YouTuberculosis or iFluenza or maybe Cell Phonic Plague.  But since it usually isn’t a permanent or long lasting event, I had to search for something simpler but just as contagious like a yawn.

After some back and forth on ideas with colleague and blogger, Gina Dodd, I settled on the idea of a “Digital Yawn.”  It turns out this isn’t a completely unique idea as research would turn up this article from the Huffington Post mentioning the yawn parallel to cell phone usage back in 2012.  I think something more ubiquitous and device agnostic works better for these situations (especially with the proliferation of tablets in the world).

The second event that usually follows a group digital yawn is a moment of involuntary silence.  This is known as “Nocialization”, or the lack of socialization in a social setting. Again, research shows that this term has started to make appearances in Urban Dictionary in mid-2013.

While I think that as a society we are becoming more and more connected, that connection comes with a cost.  The cost of giving up face to face time with others.  The cost of being fully in the moment.

So what does all this mean?  Are we all becoming Digital Zombies?  Drawn to our phones like those walkers looking for brains? Are more and more of us are ambling about through the world slowly as we check our text messages?

No. I don’t think so. The reality is, like with any innovation or cultural nuance, society is quick to become addicted and latch on.  But eventually we level out.  Check out this picture Jacob Luevano shared with me on twitter.  Apparently there were paper zombies before there were digital ones and we have been nocializing for a while.

BcP30I5IIAEJ6De.jpg-large

No, I think like anything else, this pendulum will swing to center. Becoming aware of these social (or non-social) situations is the first step in balancing out our lives.  So the next time you are in a crowd of friends or trapped in an elevator with a bunch of strangers, resist the temptation to grab for that device and check on it.

Instead, lean back, breathe in the air, and smile.  You are now a member of a new movement.  We are battling the digital walking dead one person at a time. The apocalypse may come one day, but with all of your help, we can at least enjoy each other’s conversation and company as the end comes while our phones vibrate and ping away unsuccessfully trying to gain our attention.

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