Sunday, December 26, 2010

Interview with Pearce Delphin (Part One)

Connected teachers spend a lot of time discussing the future of education on social networks. One main theme that continues to be a focal point of these discussions is how modern education needs to be more student-centered. The conversation usually takes place between teachers and I thought it would be of value to invite students from around the world to join the discussion.

I recently connected with a 17 year old student from Australia named Pearce Delphin, also known as @zzap on Twitter. Pearce came onto my radar after I read a story about some controversy he was involved in on Twitter. He struck me as a very intelligent and opinionated 17 year old, so I decided to ask his opinion on a host of subjects that interest educators in my learning community.

Pearce lives in Melbourne, Australia, he just completed high school at Peneligh and Essendon Grammar School, a private school in Essendon, Melbourne. He obtained a scholarship to Monash University and he is thinking about getting a Business/IT degree there. Pearce is interested in politics and describes himself as a deontological libertarian. He loves "coffee, philosophy, books, and of course, IT and the Internet."

Q. How would you describe your social media use on a normal day?

@zzap: On a normal day, my social media use is heavy. Along with my coffee
intake. In fact, I don't know what's heavier. The only thing I like more than social media is coffee. Amongst other things. Social media is generally limited to Twitter, though. Naturally I have a Facebook account, and a YouTube account, etc., but they really don't do it for me like Twitter does. Facebook is swamped with inane idiots I had to put up with through my school life, so unless I'm organizing a meet-up with some school friends, I tend to try and avoid it. Because really, I don't care much for most of their poorly structured, grammatically grotesque status updates or (foursquare rip-off) "check-ins".

Since mentioning foursquare, I also use that. It's a great way keeping track of your friends' whereabouts, similarly with Google Latitude, although you need to be more careful of you allow see your Google Latitude location, since it automatically updates your location, unlike foursquare where the user has to check in to a certain venue.

Q. Are you a gamer?

@zzap: No. Games have never really interested me. I like Grand Theft Auto (mainly San Andreas; the sand-boxy feel to that game was awesome), and of course the Sims and sometimes SimCity. But I wouldn't consider myself a gamer; I play them very infrequently.

Q. In the intro I linked to a story that gained you some notoriety in the news-- how did you learn to do that?

@zzap: No idea. I just acquired skills over time, I guess. It wasn't anything particularly fascinating. I just observed a flaw in Twitter and I exploited it. I have never had any formal programming training or classes. In fact, I don't particularly like programming/coding. It seems so dry.

Q. Has the incident changed your views on how you use technology at all?

@zzap: Not really, no. I was concerned for a little while that Twitter would remove my account (like they did with another user I know who used the exploit to cause anyone who viewed the tweet to automatically retweet it like a massive spam worm). I had had that account for a good four years (I was an early adopter) and I certainly didn't want it taken away from my now. But thankfully they didn't, and all was fine. Other than that, my views on technology and how I view it hasn't changed.

Q. Do you think school, as an institution, is valuable? Why?

@zzap: School is valuable to the extent to which the students are willing to learn. I don't support a compulsory schooling system (not sure about over there, but here you're legally obligated to attend school until 15 y/o), because all it does it reduce the lowest common denominator and drags everyone else down with it. When the standard is set so low because everyone has to attend, it causes the intellectuals to become frustrated and bored.

This goes the same with higher education -- university used to be exclusive. Now almost anyone
can get in to do whatever they want. Do we really need commerce degrees for salesmen? I mean, trying not to sound elitist or anything, but you cannot argue that the value of some degrees (as in the effort required and what that effort can tell you about the ability of the person) has been significantly cheapened in recent times.

Naturally, these leads to to the depreciation of degrees in general -- the degree itself now turns into just a piece of paper that entitles you to a job interview. Employers having to test a degree holder to verify that they now understand the things that completing the degree should imply shows that the degree becomes worthless. It's just a title of no value. And that fact is sickening.

Q. What aren't you being taught in school that you feel should be taught?

@zzap: Real life skills. Which seems to have completely disappeared in the last 20-years or so. Hell, I wasn't even taught grammar. GRAMMAR. You see all the kids of today not knowing the difference between your and you're, and you feel like you want to be angry at them because they're too moronic to pay attention in English class. Then you realize, perhaps they were paying attention in English class and their English teacher just never taught them the difference between a possessive pronoun and a contraction.

Schools also ought to embrace technology more. I don't want to go into too much detail about this, because I went to a very conservative private school who considered modern technology on the same realm as the Devil. But in general it seems like schools don't go to enough effort to include technology in the curriculum. Typing class would have been nice. I can type at 110 WPM, yet I still use two index fingers only. It would have been nice to know how to touch type or whatever you call it. You know, with all the fingers? I'd be unstoppable then! mwuahaha.

All the things that they seemingly used to teach, but then they removed from the curriculum. For whatever reason. I mean, how can you say schooling is becoming more progressive and embracing when they used to teach something like typing and now they don't? If anything, in some sense, it's going backward.

Q. What do you do in school that you feel is a waste of your time?

@zzap: Everything. Almost all of it is a waste. But I think that is something more personal. I'm an independent learner; I feel like attending class is a waste of time for me. Generally I disregarded everything that occurred in class, and if I had a test I would cram the weekend before and then go and ace the test. This was my life for two years.

Waking up each morning questioning the point of it all, cramming on weekends, and then going well. The worst thing was that a lot of teachers ... they didn't so much "dislike" me, they just became frustrated with me. Because I ignored their advice in class, I didn't hand up my homework, because it all seemed pointless.

Unlike most, I had acquired an effective technique to learning. Certain teachers resented that, and wanted all their students to do it their way. I was not prepared to sacrifice my learning for those kinds of teachers; and in the process, I pissed some of them off. Regardless of this, I received a good score in my final exams and there were some teachers that accepted my independent learning techniques. That's what we need more of: more acceptance of alternate mechanisms of learning.

(To be continued in Part Two)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Global Wikis & 2nd Graders

This year my 2nd graders built a wiki with students in the Bronx and Australia. The wiki is a central location to post pictures about the different environments where we live: urban, suburban and rural. My students used BrainPOP Jr. movies to learn the vocabulary, took quizzes and drew pictures on BrainPOP Jr. to assess their understanding, used digital cameras and created their own pages on the wiki. It was an exciting lesson, the students were engaged, learned a lot, and had fun. When I describe this project to people the first question they usually ask is something like, “How do you even start something like that?”

The answer is social media. Connecting with people is a fundamentally important skill for educators heading into the second decade of the 21st century. Connecting not only helps you learn what is happening in other classrooms, but it helps you build relationships with other educators that bear real pedagogical fruit.

This past summer, I connected with a teacher in the Bronx who had an idea to connect kids from the three different environments as a way to bring her lesson to life for her students. We began to plan out the details to see what was logistically feasible. She was in an urban setting and our school is suburban, but we still needed a rural school to round out the project. If I did not have a worldwide network of educators to reach out to, we would probably have had to give up on the idea. However, I knew a teacher from a rural part of Australia and I decided to ask if she could help.

So, sitting on my couch, smartphone in hand, I tweeted out the question. Within minutes she responded with contact information for a teacher in a rural school who might be interested. Over the course of the next few weeks, while waiting for a doctor’s appointment, waiting for the waiter to bring dinner or during commercials on TV, we used social media to plan together.

If it wasn’t for social media, the three classrooms would never have connected and this project would never have happened. BrainPOP Jr. supplied the content, social media supplied the connections, and our students supplied the application of the lesson on their wiki.

Blending twitter, BrainPOP, wikis, time zone differences, and different schedules is not easy, but if you are passionate about educating kids and modeling the skills they need to succeed in the coming decades, it is worth it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Be Marco Polo

Fear of the unknown is a powerful force in education. There are many teachers across America who view social media, mobile phones and other modern technologies the same way 13th century Venetians viewed The Orient. This is why technology educators need to be the Marco Polo of their school. The good news for us is that we don’t need to travel thousands of miles to make new discoveries. The rate of innovation today is astounding and we can not afford to stay in a conceptual Venice surrounded with out-dated pedagogical methods.

We need to be explorers.

We need to seek the new and the unusual. Not that everything new and unusual is useful for educating our children, but we will never know what works unless we try it ourselves.

Do technology teachers need to be early adopters? I think we do and not only that, but it is our professional responsibility to be early adopters. When it comes to hardware innovations, this is not always practical but much of what is new and unusual is on the web and often totally free. To expect teachers to be able to buy iPads on the grounds that they are “explorers” is a tough sell, but it doesn’t cost a dime to try Voicethread or Tumblr or Hashable.

Marco Polo probably encountered things in Asia that he was thoroughly unimpressed with and let these things remain mysteries to the people of Europe, but he also brought back new ideas and new tools that helped galvanize a new era. This is our job as educators—to galvanize the new era. We need to be the change we hope to see in schools and by definition, change requires new ideas, new tools and new approaches. It is our job to do the research, to try the new and unusual, to explore, to be Marco Polo for our schools.