Friday, September 9, 2011

Article: Terrible News: The Internet May Kill Snow Days [No]

Terrible News: The Internet May Kill Snow Days [No]

Terrible News: The Internet May Kill Snow DaysSnow days! Those joyful days when school is canceled because of the snow is the only redeeming quality of growing up in shitty weather. But some schools are stripping that joy away, they’re experimenting with hosting classes online. NOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Well, to be honest, I’ve never had the honor to experience a snow day. So all I can go off by is that one crappy movie and what east coasters have told me, which is plenty: having school canceled by snow is a big reason why snow exists. Come on, no school because of weather? Awesome! Running outside to build snowmens and start snowball fights? Sign me up! Who cares if you have to have school tacked on at the end, I’d take free days now and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.

But the AP is reporting that there’s a movement where schools from New York to Kansas City to Ohio are pushing for virtual school days when the snow is bad. The idea is to keep students on pace with the curriculum, which I guess is fine but there doesn’t seem to be any sort of standardization in how to do this:

The first experiments with virtual snow days began a few years ago as individual teachers started logging on during poor weather to drill older students. Since then, entire schools and districts have joined in, using websites such as Skype and YouTube to keep students as young as kindergarten studying during storms.

An obvious concern is that some households don’t have access to decent enough internet to actually partake in these virtual classes. The bigger concern is that taking away snow days would be stripping away childhood memories that shape people more than virtual school ever would. Don’t ruin future generations, people! [AP]

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Aleksandar Todorovic

How to make a crafting table

How to make a crafting table

by Mark Frauenfelder,
November 30th -0001

The multi-talented maker Nick Britsky made this cool crafting table for his multi-talented crafter girlfriend, Lish Dorset.

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Marvel At Sony’s Microscopic OLED Electronic Viewfinder

Marvel At Sony’s Microscopic OLED Electronic Viewfinder

by View Author Page,
August 30th 2011

One of the marquee features of Sony’s new Alpha and NEX cameras, which by the way look excellent, is the new electronic viewfinder. I’ve never been particularly attracted to these things, preferring the mirror-based optical viewfinder on DSLRs or simply the large, bright LCDs on the back of most cameras. But Fujifilm’s X100 (despite its flaws) changed my mind about the usefulness of the EVF, and I’m ready to accept a camera that’s all EVF, all the time. And it helps that Sony’s new screen is a miracle of miniaturization.

Tech-On has obtained some information about the bite-sized OLED panel being used in the new cameras, and seeing the device itself in its tiny glory is a reminder of how advanced our imaging devices have become:

Sony’s previous EVF was 800×600 (I believe) and a traditional LCD. The new one is not only more high-resolution at 1024×768, but it’s an OLED panel instead of backlit LCD, giving it ten times the contrast of its predecessor, according to Sony. The ~2.4 million dots making up the panel are all white diodes with red, green, or blue filters; color diodes are not quite ready for prime time yet.

The display is wholly owned and manufactured by Sony Mobile Display Corp, and it confirms that Sony is deeply into the whole OLED thing. And by combining their display business with Toshiba’s and Hitachi’s, they’re looking like the company to beat for next-generation displays. Right now the world’s most famous displays are probably the iPhone 4 and iPad displays, and if the high-res iPad 3 rumors are correct, that could continue. But the charms of OLEDs are many and various, and Sony knows it. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more impressive tech like this amazing little EVF over the next year or two.

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Why Schools Should Stop Banning Cell Phones, and Use Them for Learning

MediaShift . Why Schools Should Stop Banning Cell Phones, and Use Them for Learning

by Audrey Watters,
August 29th 2011

Why Schools Should Stop Banning Cell Phones, and Use Them for Learning

Tagged: cell phones, learning, pew internet, photography, schools, smartphones, students, technology, videocamera

Last week, a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that cell phones have become "near ubiquitous": 83 percent of American adults own one. Over half of all adult mobile phone owners had used their phones at least once to get information they needed right away. And more than a quarter said that they had experienced a situation in the previous month in which they had trouble doing something because they did not have their phones at hand.

The findings of this Pew research -- the reliance of adults on their cell phones -- stands in sharp contrast to the policies of many schools, where cell phones remained banned or restricted. Students likely have these same needs as adults: to get online and find information they need right away. But often students are banned from using their cell phones in schools, something that students themselves list as one of the greatest obstacles they face in using technology in the classroom.

For many schools, these are formal rules, written in school policy or in student handbooks. But as phones become more like extended appendages in everyone's lives, schools are rethinking their policies. MindShift asked teachers how or whether these rules were changing and received some interesting feedback.


Educator Nilda Vargas reported that students can use cell phones to access their online books, while teacher Shekema Silveri replied that although she requires cell phone usage in her class, the school policy against it hasn't changed. "Most teachers are still afraid of cell phones in the classroom because they know little about how to use them as a tool for learning," she wrote on MindShift's Facebook page.

High school teacher Kim Ibarra said that her school has gone from a "no cell phones in school at all -- not even in the hallways or at lunch" policy about four to five years ago, to "cell phone usage in the classroom if the teacher has asked for permission ahead of time with an explanation of what will be done and why it is necessary" about two years ago, to "cell phones can be used in the classroom if the teacher has students using them for educational purposes" last year, and back to the more prohibitive "students may use cell phones in the school only at lunch in a specified area" -- the policy for this upcoming year.

Many teachers noted that written policies don't always mirror informal ones, and that there's a groundswell of those who recognize that cell phones need not be seen solely as distractions or as ways for students to cheat. More educators are realizing that cell phones can enhance learning.

High school teacher Jamie Williams describes his school's policy regarding cell phones:

My high school's policy is cell phones should be off and out of sight. If seen, they are taken and the student is written up. Our handbook says students may use phones with teacher permission. I'm a huge tech nerd and make my students use their phones throughout my class. My biggest gripe is that most students have these great smartphones and barely use the device to a 10th of their potential.

Williams teaches art and technology classes. For his art class, he asks students to use photos they've taken on their cell phones as the basis for paintings they'll create. During tests, Williams allows his students to use both their handwritten notes and those they've saved on their phones. In his video class, most students have phones capable of shooting in high definition, and use them for projects. This year, he's hoping to make a large-scale mosaic of student life created solely from cell phone images.

Williams notes that it's difficult for students to have to go from one class where they're expected to make full use of their phones to another in which the phone has to be off and hidden. He also points to the irony that in a lot of these latter classes, students are "asked to do research on a desktop computer that absolutely has less processing power than the computer in their pocket."

And that's probably one of the most important observations: Many students already carry a powerful computing device in their pockets, while oftentimes much of the technology hardware at schools is woefully out-of-date. By allowing cell phones, schools may find they have equipped students with better devices -- that can work as calculators, cameras, videocameras, books and notebooks, for example -- at no or low cost to the school.


Cell phones are, of course, just one piece of a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) program, and this wiki created by Manitoba educator Darren Kuropatwa gives some tips on how to prepare for, and take advantage of, cell phones and other devices brought into the classroom from home.

But the biggest obstacle remains the attitudes of those educators and administrators who still frown on the devices and fear their usage, who confiscate them from students, and who see them as a distraction rather than a powerful tool for learning. It's clear that schools must come up with an acceptable use policy for cell phones in the classroom. But as more adults indicate that they're "lost" without their cell phones, it hardly seems acceptable that we ban students' access to the devices.

Phone photo by Kyle N. on Flickr.

Audrey Watters is an education technology writer, rabble-rouser, and folklorist. She writes for MindShift, O'Reilly Radar, Hack Education, and ReadWriteWeb.

This post originally appeared on KQED's MindShift, which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Smarter Ways to Have School Boards Update Parents

Smarter Ways to Have School Boards Update Parents | Aug 29th 2011

Earlier this month the Vancouver School Board (VSB) released an iPhone app that - helpfully - will use push notifications to inform parents about school holidays, parent interviews, and scheduling disruptions such as snow days. The app is okay, it's a little clunky to use, and a lot of the data - such as professional days - while helpful in an app, would be even more helpful as an iCal feed parents could subscribe to in their calendars.

That said, the VSB deserves credit for having the vision of developing an app. Positively, the VSB app team hopes to add new features, such as letting parents know about after school activities like concerts, plays and sporting events.

This is a great innovation and without a doubt, other school boards will want apps of their own. The problem is, this is very likely to lead to an enormous amount of waste and duplication. The last thing citizens want is for every school board to be spending $15-50K developing iPhone apps.

Which leads to a broader opportunity for the Minister of Education.

Were I the Education Minister, I'd have my technology team recreate the specs of the VSB app and propose an RFP for it but under an open source license and using phonegap so it would work on both iPhone and Android. In addition, I'd ensure it could offer reminders - like we do at - so that people could get email or text messages without a smart phone at all.

I would then propose the ministry cover %60 percent of the development and yearly upkeep costs. The other 40% would be covered by the school boards interested in joining the project. Thus, assuming the app had a development cost of $40K and a yearly upkeep of $5K, if only one school board signed up it would have to pay $16K for the app (a pretty good deal) and $2K a year in upkeep. But if 5 school districts signed up, each would only pay $3.2K in development costs and $400 dollars a year in upkeep costs. Better still, the more that sign up, the cheaper it gets for each of them. I'd also propose a governance model in which those who contribute money for develop would have the right to elect a sub-group to oversee the feature roadmap.

Since the code would be open source other provinces, school districts and private schools could also use the app (although not participate in the development roadmap), and any improvements they made to the code base would be shared back to the benefit of BC school districts.

Of course by signing up to the app project school boards would be committing to ensure their schools shared up to date notifications about the relevant information - probably a best practice that they should be doing anyways. This process work is where the real work lies. However, a simple webform (included in the price) would cover much of the technical side of that problem. Better still the Ministry of Education could offer its infrastructure for hosting and managing any data the school boards wish to collect and share, further reducing costs and, equally important, ensuring the data was standardized across the participating school boards.

So why should the Ministry of Education care?

First, creating new ways to update parents about important events - like when report cards are issued so that parents know to ask for them - helps improve education outcomes. That should probably reason enough, but there are other reasons as well.

Second, it would allow the ministry, and the school boards, to collect some new data: professional day dates, average number of snow days, frequency of emergency disruptions, number of parents in a district interested in these types of notifications. Over time, this data could reveal important information about educational outcomes and be helpful.

But the real benefit would be in both cost savings and in enabling less well resourced school districts to benefit from technological innovation wealthier school districts will likely pursue if left to their own devices. Given there are 59 english school districts in BC, if even half of them spent 30K developing their own iPhone apps, then almost $1M dollars would be collectively spent on software development. By spending $24K, the ministry ensures that this $1M dollars instead gets spent on teachers, resources and schools. Equally important, less tech savvy or well equipped school districts would be able to participate and benefit.

Of course, if the City of Vancouver school district was smart, they'd open source their app, approach the Ministry of Education and offer it as the basis of such a venture. Doing that wouldn't just make them head of the class, it'd be helping everyone get smarter, faster.

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Principal’s Map For Parent Involvement | Connected Principals

Principal’s Map For Parent Involvement

by Chris Wejr,
August 28th 2011

Parent involvement and engagement are areas in which I have been trying to grow as an educator.  Through families at my school as well as online, our school has begun to try to be more inviting and to actually listen to the voice of our families.  This post was originally posted on The Wejr Board Blog as a guest post by Sheila Steward (@sheilaspeaking).  Sheila is one of my mentors on the topic of parent and family engagement in school.

Sheila’s perspectives and advice regarding parent involvement come from a variety of roles and experience in education and working with parents.  She is involved in local and provincial parent networks in Ontario, and she supports newcomer families with English language learning.  In the past 8 years, she has worked collaboratively with a number of principals and administrators to support parent involvement initiatives, consultations, and activities.  She recently presented to principal candidates on school councils and parent involvement.

A Principal’s Map for Parent Involvement* by Sheila Stewart

I think being a principal is an amazing and key role to have in education.  I also recognize the work load of principals—from managing the physical space of the school to the responsibilities they have to the school community—staff, students, and families. The responsibility of establishing parent involvement, outreach and communication strategies at the school will rest a large part on the principal as well.

Parent involvement has become a frequent topic of conversation in education lately with the many ways that it is analyzed, interpreted, and deliberated upon.  The visions for and expectations of parents in both their involvement in their own child’s education and in the broader context of school and community may also vary from district to district, and from stakeholder group to stakeholder group—each may want something different in what it looks like and in its outcomes.

So…where to start as new to the principal role, or new to a school?

From the system level (Ministry/Depart. of Ed./District/School Boards) the message may be that the kind of parent involvement to foster and focus on is that which increases student learning and/or specific “achievement” outcomes.  I am not sure there is a set of clear and certain strategies that can be used and measured, but not all should be at loss because of this and nor should parent involvement be dismissed.  I believe that the links with parents and families remain essential to supporting students.

The culture and climate of the school will become apparent quite quickly to a new administrator.  This is the context where a principal will need to navigate various avenues that are suitable to the parents and families of the school’s students.  It is important for principals to find a style that is appropriate to his or her school community, whether the school is large or small, urban or rural, elementary or secondary.  A principal who develops strong relationships with parents and parent groups, will have parents who are more likely to become involved in the school community, and this in turn will have a strong impact on the overall effectiveness and inclusiveness of the school. The principal will be key in modelling and setting the appropriate positive tone and connections with parents.

As long as principals are familiar with their local policies and mandates regarding parent involvement and parent advisory groups, they should be able to create a suitable and flexible plan for the school community.  Parents will be diverse in the ways they want to be involved, and the best plan for parent involvement should honour this.  Policies and guidelines can be helpful, but there will always be realities to consider.

Before establishing a plan, a principal might want to consider the following:

  • Get to know the ways parents connect to the school currently (e.g. face to face, formal/informal, electronically, social media).
  • Take some time before moving forward with new plans—extra time may be needed to build relationships and trust to support changes you may want to make ahead.
  • Build on what is working well—lead through listening.
  • Help all stakeholders connect to the broader picture of education, while still maintaining that each student matters and has unique needs.
  • Create opportunities and spaces to understand and gain clarity about what parents need, what the comfort zones of involvement are currently, and what barriers exist.

A principal might also want to determine the following:

  • Are parents involved in authentic, engaging ways, or are they receiving mixed messages about the nature or pathway of their involvement?
  • Have parents been receiving information about the positive things and extra efforts that teachers/staff have been doing to support students and the school? (creates confidence and can inspire further support from parents)
  • Has the school demonstrated a welcoming approach and honoured the roles and expertise of parents in their child’s life and in the community?

Communication Comes First!

Regardless of the approach or plan, it will be important to establish clear communication plans and strategies—who, when, how, how often, what—between the school/principal and parents/community, between teachers and parents, and also the parent group with each other and the school’s parents.  Principals are ultimately responsible for school communications, so they need to be clear and strategic in all the various protocols that may be preferred by both teachers and parents. Steve Reifman also has a great list of suggestions on his blog, “9 reasons to communicate frequently with parents”.

It is also important that the school community is aware of how 2-way communications can occur.  This may involve a number of different ways, including electronic communication and/or social media.  Opportunity for 2-way communication often IS the parent engagement. All else can flow from there, in a much more proactive and realistic way which may also reduce the need for conflict resolution.  On-going input and feedback from parents will also help inform a principal’s decision-making at the school.

Here is what it might look like as you proceed into the school year:

  • Parents who want to support from home will know that it is valued and will still have access to support and 2-way communication channels.
  • Parents who wish to help in the classroom and/or communicate with their child’s teacher will know when and how to do that.
  • Parents who are committed to and interested in the more structured and organized meetings and activities at the school will be valuable and vital for further connections and partnerships with families through shared leadership and outreach.
  • Parents who attend special events, read the school news and blogs will feel connected and will share the good news with others in the community.
  • Parents who cannot attend the school as often will know how to communicate with the school or teacher or parent group.

What is it all for?

Clear and understood channels for communication and an inclusive vision of the different way that parents will support kids should enhance the principal’s ability to facilitate partnerships and positive relationships within the school community that will ultimately support student experiences at the school.  Through various communication and involvement pathways, all parent participation can be valued.  As valued and trusted participants in education, it is more likely that parent involvement will benefit principal leadership, teacher support, and student learning, as well as contribute to an inclusive, vibrant school community.

I hope this framework of ideas is useful and leads to discovering more effective and practical strategies that can be shared further.

*Note: at Kent School, we have a goal of “Family Engagement” (for insight on involvement vs engagement see Larry Ferlazzo’s post here) as we realize that the support systems of many of our students extend beyond the parents. The ideas from Sheila will be applied to our goal.

Thank you to Sheila Stewart for her efforts and thoughts with this post.  As always, comments and questions for Sheila and others are appreciated and encouraged. Please see the original post for more comments.

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