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LearnFestATX – A Learning Event From The Future

Let me paint a picture for you.

You spend a lot of money to attend a conference for professional learning. You get flights lined up, hotel, transportation, etc. Then you go to the event. You spend the first hour trying to find the registration desk.  You wait in line for a half-hour to get your badge. Then you plop down on the floor and start looking over the schedule guide to see what sessions you’ll attend.

There’s so many choices, it’s almost overwhelming. It’s like walking into Costco without a shopping list. You go in wanting one thing, and you come out owning a 3-lb lobster claw that you didn’t know you needed. Once you do decide on a session, you stand in line for 15 minutes hoping to get in. Others are over capacity and you can’t get in, which causes you to speed walk 1.2 miles down the convention hall only to walk in late to a session and find the dreaded seat in the very middle of everyone.

After several hours of this, you are ready for an early happy hour. You see people laughing and having fun, but you’re not sure what they are laughing about and if they are in fact having fun. At about 2pm, you find a local watering hole with fellow attendees trying to hide their badge of shame around their necks as you are all clearly failures.

Or are you?

I would argue that you are not the failure, but instead that the conference event failed you. In its desire to pack the house with thousands of people, the large conference has lost focus on what’s most important: the attendee experience. Sure there are amazing speakers from all over and great content, but the UX (user experience) is severely lacking. Why go stand in line for a movie you might not want to watch?

On day 2, you wake up with a headache both from the early happy hour and the brain fog that comes from being overwhelmed. You go to the keynote, hoping for some inspiration. However, you are now “cattled” in and out of a 5000-seat arena where you end up skipping sitting down because you forgot to charge your laptop. So, you find a spot on the floor next to one of the 4 plugs in the 30,000 sq. ft. room. The keynote speaker is good (they usually are, to be fair) but now what? Do you engage in conversation with someone? Do you rush out the door before the closing remarks in the hopes of not being a part of the herd?

All of these above scenarios have been part of my experiences attending large conferences in the past. I feel like I spend much of my time being shepherded around or looking for the next session, but rarely walk away with my money’s worth in terms of knowledge and experiences. In fact, the best learning usually happens in conversations and dialogues with colleagues or things posted on the conference hashtag.

With all this in mind, in 2012, we created an event called iPadpalooza. We didn’t want to call it an “iConference” because we really wanted it to be something quite different. We wanted it to be a learning festival. A place to experience something different as an attendee. A place where the things that matter the most, the interactions, discussions, and collaboration are the focal point of the event.

Flash forward to present day.

Taking all past experiences, both good and bad, when it comes to professional learning, we are attempting something, well…different. The event formerly known as iPadpalooza is now LearnFestATX (after all, it’s about the learning, not a device). Last year, rather than just changing the name and moving on, we decided to beta test some new concepts in professional learning with a much smaller audience. Following that beta test, we discovered what worked and what didn’t. Taking just the parts that worked and adding in some of our own magic, we have created what we feel will be an event from the future, for the future.

Our motto this year is “Ready Learner One” along with a retro video game theme (sometimes the past can best prepare us for the future, right?). Many of the things we are trying are still top-secret, but here’s just a few highlights of things you could experience as an attendee this summer:

Three Different Perspectives to Learning:

As someone attending, you’ll experience learning in three different ways.  The first way is the most traditional in terms of learning as part of a large group (during opening and closing events) or a medium-sized group (during interactive and make-n-take sessions). The second way is learning as part of a collaborative team either with our Teacher Shark Tank or the APPmazing Race. The third way is learning as an individual by reflecting in our Mindfulness Lounge, participating in our digital petting zoo, lunchtime interactions, or attempting to win our massive easter egg hunt (details revealed at event).

Featured Speakers:

While the traditional conference puts featured speakers in certain rooms and only for certain times, we want our featured speakers to be much more part of the event. They should be learners too. As an attendee, you should have multiple opportunities to interact with them as well. Sure, there will be some scheduled sessions, but now with our new Mindfulness Lounge and Expert’s Lounge, you’ll have opportunities to sit, relax and reflect with some of the top educational experts around. Our featured speakers will also be playing multiple roles in some of the experiences that are taking place, from Impractical EdTechsters to the Ed Tech Family Feud to a Poetry Slam, you’ll see these folks in roles that stretch their thinking and yours.

A Different Kind of Keynote:

I can’t give away too much here, but for those that attended our beta-test last year with the “Silent Disco” presentation style, we’ll be doing that on a much larger scale during our opening session on June 12. Also, we’ll be bringing back our “What’s HOT in Ed Tech” challenge for the closing ceremonies. Let’s just say it involves some new ways to “spice” up a talk to a large crowd. We’re also super-pumped to have Manoush Zomorodi as our day 2 Keynote speaker. These large groups events will have tons of audience engagement as well as boat-loads of door prizes.

Dive Deeper Before the Madness:

While the main LearnFestATX runs on June 12th & 13th, we will also be having our 3-hour deep dive PreFest LearnShops on June 11th. No more fighting for a spot or a seat. Just buy your ticket, select your sessions, and you are guaranteed a seat.

In summary, I’ve always been of the belief that learning is an active sport. Sometimes that’s a team sport, sometimes it’s an individual sport. But the bottom line is, you get out of it what you put into it. This is true of either a traditional conference or our event. The biggest difference is, at our event, you don’t have to try to seek out those learning opportunities. At our event, they seek you out.

I hope that you’ll join us this summer at LearnFestATX. We do believe that learning as a team can be powerful too, so we offer great group discounts if you want to come hang out with colleagues or meet new ones. With our event, you have the ultimate level of voice & choice. Something we want our students to have as well, so why not model it in a professional learning environment?

Come see what all the fuss is about this summer in Austin:

LearnFestATX Registration

Hint for those of you that read all the way to the bottom of this page. Try and reach out to a featured speaker to get a 20% off discount!

Editor’s note: LearnFestATX was recently listed as one of EdSurge’s top Ed Tech events to attend in 2019!

 

Choosing the Next Device: A Method for Crowd-Sourcing Input

In the spring of 2015, our district passed a bond which included over $5 million for a line item called “Student Mobile Device Initiative.”  For the past 4 and 1/2 years we’ve been a 1:1 district K-12 using the 16GB iPad2 as our device of choice. With the passing of the bond, we now had an opportunity to not only reflect on the first few years of the program but also to garner input from a variety of sources. This post is an inside look at the process we used and the ultimate results of that process.  It’s my hope that other districts will do the same when investing money into devices and also realize that purchasing the device is the easiest thing, it’s changing pedagogy and creating meaningful learning with technology that is the hard thing.

Formation of the Digital Learning Task Force

With opportunity comes great responsibility.  Ok, so maybe that wasn’t the exact Spiderman line, but we knew that going forward we needed to make sure we had several voices represented in choosing our next device. Rather than just form a “Technology Committee”, we decided to create a “Digital Learning Task Force” (DLTF).  The name was symbolic in that this was much more than just a selection of a device. The task force would be made up of teachers, students, parents, community members and administrators.

In the summer, we publicly posted an application for members of the district community to apply to be a part of a newly formed task force that would ultimately recommend the final device. (Here’s a copy of the application) In September, we gathered some board members and administrators to look through the applications in an attempt to bring a diversified group of parents from different schools in our community.  We then did the same thing in choosing our teachers, students and administrators to be a part of this team.

In our first meeting we discussed the two goals of this group:

  1. Look at what our current reality is when it comes to integration of technology AND
  2. What do we want our preferred future to be?

The task force then constructed multiple ways to not only gather input from the district community but also to learn and investigate the current state of devices in schools.

Digital Learning Symposiums

In an effort to create more discussions around digital learning, we decided to host several symposiums open to the community as a launching point for these conversations.  Each of these were captured via Livestream for those parents that couldn’t make it in person or wanted to watch at a later date. The first one was an expert panel made up of industry experts, university professors and people from the local start-up community. The second was a panel of teachers from across grade-levels and disciplines and included some round-table discussions as well as the panel discussion. The final symposium was made up of students from 1st grade to 12th grade and also included some round table discussions.  During the teacher and student symposiums, we asked students to submit their questions via video to the staff.  We also had a different person moderate each symposium.

Also the symposiums, feedback posters were placed around the room that correlated with online feedback walls.  The four posters asked the following questions (links to virtual walls included)

  1. What are some things we are doing well with technology?
  2. What are some things that we need to improve?
  3. What other things do we need to consider when it comes to tech? What’s next?
  4. What future ready skills do our students need?

Site Visits

One of the first assumptions from the public community was that iPads were not really being used much at the K-2 area.  There was a feeling that we could provide laptops or higher end devices to the high school students if we just took away the devices from the lower grades or went to a shared model. Before any decisions were made on that front, it was decided that the task force visit an elementary, middle and high school campus first.

Though those visits, the task force saw that the in fact some of the most meaningful uses of the devices were happening at the lower levels of elementary.  While they had the devices the least amount of time, they actually had integrated them much more fully than even some of the upper level high school classes. It was through these site visits that another recommendation would come in that we need to do a better job of communicating what’s happening in the classroom and which apps are being used district-wide.

Focus Groups

As the symposiums were very public, it makes it difficult sometimes for people to share honestly what they were feeling or concerns they had. As a result, we hosted focus groups for students, parents and teachers at each of our campuses and even hosted a central one just for parents. These focus groups provided some great qualitative data as well.  It’s through the focus groups where we heard the most about the day-to-day issues with distraction and the need to occasionally have access to other devices when needed. One other outcome as a result of this is the idea that even though we’ve made our final device recommendation (skip to the end to see that), we want to continue to have these focus groups yearly so we can make necessary adjustments on the initiative.

Online Interactions

As many on the task force mentioned, not everyone can get to a physical meeting or symposium.  We all live busy lives and it only seemed to make sense that since this was all about digital learning that we have an online component.  So besides the symposiums being posted online and the interactive feedback posters (via Padlet.com), we also created a Google Community. The community was a place where anyone could join and post questions or resources when it comes to digital learning. We also used the #EanesDLTF hashtag whenever information was shared or posted as a way to gather data. This hashtag would also be used as a way to curate questions for the panels at the symposium.

Survey, survey, then survey again

One of the final methods of data gathering was the use of many surveys.  Each survey focused on a different segment of our population and were focused on gathering information on both the current reality and our preferred future.  Here are copies of our surveys that your are free to look at and remix for your own purposes.

The results of the surveys were very diverse and gave us a wide range of feedback.  We saw a general tendency that the older the students were, the more they wanted to have a physical keyboard or laptop. Here’s an example of some of the data we shared with the school board on that first survey.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 11.51.32 AM

As a result of this and a discrepancy at the high school in terms of what students and teachers preferred, we decided to send a follow-up survey once we had narrowed down the device choices. Many of the students and teachers that preferred laptops wanted a high-end MacBook as their preferred machine of choice.  As budget for the program wouldn’t allow for a $1200 device and for the uses they had outlined being so varied based on class, we needed to land on a base-level device to use for all classes. We then took the final three devices (Macbook Air 11″, Dell 3350, and an iPad Air 2 64GB w/keyboard case) and made them available for viewing a week prior to sending the final high school survey. Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 11.57.45 AM

We sent out follow-up surveys to both the students and staff of the high school to land on our final decision.

Final Recommendation:

One thing for certain, was that no matter what the selection, there would be some groups happy and some upset with the choice.  After 600 hours of focus groups, discussions, meetings, presentations and symposiums as well as over 6000 survey responses, the task force voted unanimously for the option that gave us the most flexibility, with the best support model as well as ease of integration. In choosing the iPad Air 2 (64GB) for all levels, we are giving students and staff a model of iPad that goes 12 times faster, holds 4 times as much memory and now allows for split-screen multitasking. We also added a keyboard component for upper grades and some options for keyboards at the lower grades. This also honors the work of many teachers who have utilized the iPad to improve student learning in their classrooms for the past 4-5 years. It also reinforces the work we have been doing on the horizontal and vertical alignment of tools and curriculum within our district.

For more information I created this infographic which was distributed along with a press release today. (blog coming later on how I made the infographic using Keynote):

DLTF recommendation infographic

 

How Did the Textbook Go Extinct?

Our summer visit to the land before time

Our summer visit to the land before time

My daughters love talking about dinosaurs.  This summer we visited the dinosaur park in Cabazon, CA (made famous by Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) just so they could climb inside a dinosaur. I’ve shown my oldest the original Jurassic Park (not the scary parts) and she has begun to ask me, “Daddy, what happened to the dinosaurs?  Are there still some around? Did they become birds?”

Lots of questions and lots of theories but it’s made me think about our own educational landscape and the changes that have been happening dramatically the last 5-7 years when it comes to mobility, social media and content creation.  We still have a lot of dinosaurs walking the earth in education, namely the major textbook companies. What is going to happen to them?  Will they go extinct or evolve?

Today, I attended a State Board of Education session on “Educating the Digital Generation.”  I was pleased to see many educators like Scott Floyd (@woscholar) and superintendents like Randy Moczygemba (@rmocyzgembanb) present to share their frustrations and concerns around the digital textbook industry. (You can view their testimony here: http://www.house.state.tx.us/video-audio/) Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 7.54.13 PMHowever, being that textbook publishing is a big business in education, the major textbook companies were also given time to not only defend their platforms, but also ask for more support.  The SBOE in Texas has some progressive members that support digital learning in schools but they also have some that seem to be steeped in learning from prehistoric times.  One such board member mentioned that “kids are stupid” when it comes to social media and that “using the slide rule is better for learning math than a graphing calculator.”

What does all of this mean for major textbook companies? I have an outlook for them, and judging by recent events, their future is bleak.  Let’s look at some signs that spell the demise of the “Big 3” (Pearson, HMH, and McGraw Hill) as well as the massive educational asteroid that will ultimately wipe them out.

Open Educational Resources

With the government’s recent push for more Open Educational Resources (OER) and the already massively available “flexbooks” through sites like CK12.org, we no longer have to purchase an expensive, unreliable online textbook from a major company.  Instead of spending millions upon millions of dollars on textbooks, districts can instead dedicate that money towards staffing, technology, and paid online resources that will actually help kids with learning.  In Texas, we have our Instructional Materials Allotment (IMA) which allows for “local control” of funds so districts can choose what they want to purchase when it comes to instructional materials.  However, the most recent statistics show that 93% of those dollars are spent on traditional textbook resources, mainly from the Big 3.  Why is that the case if there is still local control?  Primarily it’s the “safe” thing to do.  No district wants to stick their neck out too far to purchase something not vetted or…*gasp*…perhaps even save that money for other instructional uses.

Crowd Sourced Content

In addition to the OER resources out there, teachers and schools are sharing more than ever before.  Take a look at the hundreds of twitter chats happening online daily centered around education to see the explosion of sharing that is taking place.  Some of this sharing comes in the form of “paid sharing” via a program like TeachersPayTeachers.com.  I don’t begrudge an already underpaid teacher trying to make a buck (although profiting off other underpaid teachers is a slight concern), I do think the more open we are, the better the learning will be for our students.  I recently listened to Tim Berners-Lee, the “Father of the world wide web”, on the TED stage talking about how if he had made the internet cost money, it would have never turned into the great collective network that it is today. I think if we freely share resources and best practices, that crowd sourced content will ultimately make the Textbook-destroying asteroid even bigger.

MYOT (Make Your Own Textbook)

Ok, so a bit of a play on words of the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) movement in Ed Tech, but when you take the OER resources and the crowd-sourced content being shared, why not just get the best teachers in the district or region and have them create their own book?  It’s not about the book, it’s about the learning standards right?  Paying teachers even HALF of what we pay textbook companies to make a better book, would not only save a district thousands, but also create a better product that is ultimately district-owned.  We’ve started down this road with the Texas History adoption, and during today’s state testimony, many districts reported successfully building and deploying their own “textbooks”.   I see this as the next evolution in content provision and can even see it further evolving to where kids start to create their own textbook.  After all, teaching the material is the best way to learn right? The meteor is approaching….

Publishers vs. Programmers

Some of the dinosaurs did indeed evolve and survived.  Those smaller mammals that were more nimble (i.e. smaller content publishers) survived and even thrived following the extinction level event.  When working with the Big 3, you must realize that they are publishers, not programmers.  I can’t begin to tell you the amount of man hours wasted with data uploads, failed ebook downloads, incorrect content, and massive lack of technical design when it comes to digital textbooks from the larger providers.  While I won’t mention names I can tell you that one company even creates a “bridge” product to connect it’s multiple products and product teams. Another when asked directly about integration with our student information system (SIS), stated that they “never mentioned it would be seamless.”

While you would think an eTextbook would save money, in many cases, because of how they are bundled, these cost districts almost the same amount of money.  In many ways these companies take fat checks from schools and districts all over the land to cover their massive bottom-lines, not to better serve districts.  The smaller, more nimble companies, on the other hand, start with programming and build a better project based on client feedback (that client being the teachers and students).

The Final Explosion and Aftermath –

Several districts here in Texas have started to join forces to fight these behemoths and their poor practices and heavy costs.  We’ve pleaded with them to join up with a company like Clever, which handles the automation of data from SIS to textbook company (at NO COST to the school or district).  Two of the three major textbook companies have told me that we “don’t need that kind of integration” or “sure it’s free for you, but it costs us.”  The fact that a company that gets millions of dollars from districts actually has the gall to say that is appalling.

And so, with this global killer approaching their industry, it’s obvious that the only thing keeping them alive is their sheer size and girth.  But like the dinosaurs, those that don’t evolve will become extinct.  And in some ways, maybe the educational world will be a better place because of it.

A textbook museum from the future?

A textbook museum from the future? Perhaps…