Monday, August 08, 2016

Inserting Māori macrons into Google Docs

Couple of quick videos about inserting Māori macrons into Google Docs; firstly, with Easy Accent - an Add-on for Google Docs, and then using the native preferences of Docs and the automatic substitution option to replace commonly used words. As a New Zealand educator I often find myself using a variety of te reo Māori terms in my work so having this last option available is really time-saving for me.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016


There's a lot of talk about how blockchain will be used for monetary transactions, but we will also see them emerge as containers for credentials like educational qualifications.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Geography is Everything: the pervasive use of virtual reality may arrive sooner than we think

Virtual and omnipresent cyberspaces are set to quickly become a very real part of our geography. The surreal impact of this winter's Pokemon Go trend combined with an inevitable Christmas of affordable headgear would signal a generation fast emerging that will colonise virtual worlds like an empire with a religious imperative and a sextant.

I spoke to my daughter recently about whether she would like to live in Minecraft - a thought experiment that was met by an overwhelmingly positive response and lots of seamless chatter about how living like this would be. Games, in particularly those with extensive and popular narratives developed through vast amounts of user input, like Minecraft, The Sims, and various other game based worlds, are currently still three dimensional models in two dimensional visual spaces. But this is changing fast as the hardware is becoming readily available, especially with the combination of mobile phone plus a visor that seems to be an effective phase in the popularisation of virtual reality.

I anticipate that virtual spaces will collide quite dramatically with many aspects of contemporary society: with the very idea of the nation state, with entertainment paradigms, and ultimately with our most basic ontological categories (including race and sexuality). They'll crash into politics, parenting, commerce, and pedagogy with such an effect that in my opinion it would be insane for education to take a "nostalgic moment" further entrenching an "analog pastoralism" as my old neighbor from LA, Ben Bratton, has referred to it in his work on software, global computation, and sovereignty. What full scale adoption of new digital technologies means for educators is a continued and more open reflection on the varied and complex history of success and failures of the public education project. But debating whether the presence of personal technology in our, and our children's, everyday work and lives is a now a totally mute point. The questions of how we might use technology to contribute to, or detract from, developing concepts of citizenship (in existing, and new, geographies) is still a pillar of such an educational project in my view. My point is that debating the when is just to lose precious time when we need to be reinventing or at least "up-skilling" ourselves.
For the educational project, if “geography is everything”, as a geography teacher friend of mine is prone to saying, then the categories of geography like the the state, culture, location, and human-environment interaction, etc., are probably a good place to start. What are the implications when many people are extant largely outside of the many traditional structures of the state? What do non-disputable digital identities based on blockchain technology imply for an individuals' futures as they occupy, act, and behave in such spaces for their education, their employment, and their legal needs? Geography confronts a lot of these more head-on than many subjects of the high school curriculum.

There are a lot of questions, but to be sure we (educators, parents, and government) place a lot of emphasis on education as sort of buffer to total immersion. Our project as early educators are often tied to predictions of students' futures, of immersion in  "the real world" of work and careers, or higher education, or into the difficult problems of our world. Our youth are about to become significantly immersed in virtual worlds, and unless we are open to this, and can start talking about this in the staff rooms and online spaces of our profession as a pending reality we will be overtaken by it's tsunami-like change. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Using Slack in a High School Class

In the short time I've been teaching high school I've had hundreds of opportunities to witness students in my classes log into their email accounts. It's always quite shocking to see the multitudes of unread emails that wallpaper their inboxes, but I'm no longer surprised. The fact is that they don't like email. Email was very late in providing a friendly mobile experience; it's not really a format for synchronous communication; and its form is associated with an adult world of formalities. Plus the emoticons suck.

This bothers me because as a teacher, and particularly a teacher with a background in online technology and eLearning, I feel a strong need to be able to communicate via online channels with students, and up until now email has been my core communication tool. Email is embedded not only into my way of working but it is a fundamental feature of many of the other services we use in education. Google Classroom fires off an email for almost every interaction available to you.

So my dilemma has been: how to communicate with students online without hammering them with the message of "check your email, check your email"? I decided this year that I wanted try a space that would work for the both of us, rather than forcing them into spaces that worked for me. I entertained the idea of Facebook, but not for long. Not only are the teenage stats for Facebook declining, but I find the privacy settings to be quite confusing and I didn't want to use a platform that blurred the lines between our school lives and our personal lives that much. I considered Instagram and its new chat / group function, but the focus on pictures and almost no options for linking out or adding files dissuaded me. Snapchat? I asked #edchatNZ about that on Twitter and was quickly warned about the fact that the quick deletion of posts led towards an ethical quagmire around accountability. Part of me also didn't want to colonise another of their spaces with school stuff. They need spaces that are free from teachers.

Enter my experiment with Slack. Slack is an online platform partially promoted as a replacement for email for teams. Slack has many of the features of a social media platform: direct messaging, the ability to quickly create channels for unique discussion topics, and more importantly it has a seamless mobile experience and notifications. This last feature is possibly the most important one. Notifications are key. If it's not sending out notifications it may as well not exist. Our Year 9 English Slack team (that's what groups are called in Slack) is by invite only and you have to have an email from our school domain to join; this keeps us safe and creates a space that is private to us. I've integrated our class Google Calender into Slack so that reminders of upcoming events are sent into a channel, and I've added the Google Drive integration so we can quickly share docs from inside our Drives. Slack makes me available to answer questions from students from 8:00am to 5:30pm. I've set that time myself and told the class; after 5:30pm notifications are off, and my status is set to 'away'.*

Not only does this class use Slack outside of class times, but we also use it inside of class as well. Our silent writing sessions (this is a BYOD 1:1 device class) are only silent vocal chord times. Having an efficient platform for quick communication allows us to maintain a quiet environment for writing or other study, but at the same time doesn't shut down communication completely. Students can ask me questions on Slack during this period, or they can talk to each other about work. They can create their own channels on the platform, invite who they want, then delete them when they're done. There are already a couple going that I've not been invited to (although as admin I can actually see them).

Here are the stats after 9 weeks of the use of Slack in our class of 31 students:
  • Approximately 3,000 messages have been sent.
  • 469 (16%) messages are in public channels (public to members of our team),
  • the rest (2,500+) have been Direct Messages (DMs, private between individuals).
  • 146 files have been posted. 
I feel as if that's a pretty good indicator of engagement, and I also wonder if the platform is enabling students who are a bit too shy to ask questions in class more opportunities to engage with me one on one.

There is a lot of potential for the use of synchronous communication tools and social media in education. Slack is working well for me in this respect and I will continue to use it in the BYOD class. The free offering of the platform is adequate for our current needs and we're still exploring and finding new ways to use it as we become more familiar with it. Plus, the emojis are awesome.

(I'm leaving talk of the slackbot for another post.)

* I've modified this post since originally authoring it and I think it's worthwhile mentioning that here. Originally I had my 'office hours' set to be from 8:30am to 10:30pm - essentially the hours that I'm awake, but it's been suggested to me by an adviser at school that I reconsider this practice. He alerted me to ethical considerations around making myself available at night, as well as considerations about 'teacher burnout', etc. My rationale was that these are the hours that I'm online and that being a fully connected individual for the majority of that time I am available and willing to respond to student requests for help during these times. This has made some teachers quite uncomfortable as they see that it may raise expectations on them and the profession at large. There was also some discussion around the remunerative aspect of being available over this period, but the elephant in that room seems to be that all teachers are working far beyond the hours they are remunerated for anyways. But, for the time-being I've modified my 'office hours' to be more in-line with the normal work day.

What do you think?