What is the true purpose of technology in education?

As 2017 comes to a close, I find myself reflecting more and more on this question. What is the true purpose of technology in education? It’s a question that I have personally contemplated for many years. It is also something that our Learning Technology team in our district continues to have many discussions around as we deepen our understanding of the role of technology in our schools.  

Our thinking continues to evolve with every conversation, but currently my thinking has been circling around 2 particular key roles that technology plays in education (with the first role being the most important, and the second role ultimately serving this first role).

Key Role #1: Technology should enhance the learning experience for each student.

This key role requires that we always think pedagogy first, technology second. This lens has helped our team become more strategic and purposeful when supporting educators and students in leveraging technology for deeper learning.  

It’s the difference between…

  • “what apps should I download?” vs. “what technology would support my students in making their thinking visible in this activity?”
  • “should I buy Chromebooks?” vs. “which devices would best meet the learning I am designing for my students?”
  • “how can I plan a lesson with this web tool?” vs. “which web tools could support my learners given the learning intentions that we’ve identified here?”  

Too often we have a tendency to “lead with the tool”. We hear about a new technology or web tool and dive in head first. When we take this approach of considering how technology can enhance the learning experience for our students, it can often lead to the strategic choice of NOT using technology at all. A great example of this would be exclusively using Google Classroom for class discussions and not having any dialogue face-to-face. While meaningful conversation can occur online, I believe balance is key and the social nature of learning requires real interaction between individuals.

Now I have argued in the past that at times our first step when it comes to technology integration is often substitutive in nature (Read: Don’t Underestimate the Importance of the “S” in the “SAMR” journey). That being said, it’s important to remember this is only the first step. Our long term goal must always be to embed technology in a way that truly enhances and redefines the learning experience for our students.     

When we embrace this key role of technology (i.e. to enhance learning), we are more likely to layer in technology that:

  • promotes our students in being creators and not consumers,
  • empowers all students with voice and choice on how they synthesize and share their learning,
  • … and supports each and every student in accessing the curriculum (ex. assistive technologies)

This leads me to my current thinking on the second key role of technology in education.

Key Role #2: Technology should help all educators and students in creating the time and space to focus on learning (i.e. key role #1).

Technology by its very definition is meant to make our lives easier and allow us to do things we couldn’t do without it. Many educators in our district leverage technology on a daily basis to work more efficiently and effectively.  

Technology can help us in…

  • gathering information from parents and students by sharing a single link,
  • creating helpful videos to explain concepts to others,
  • collaborating and sharing information and resources with others using the cloud,
  • … and learning how to better search the web to find what we’re looking for.

In all these examples, you can no doubt think of a way to complete the task at hand without technology. The real power that technology brings is that it greatly streamlines the process. With an adaptive skill set around technology use, we can do things that may have not been feasible/possible without the technology and in a fraction of the time. The extra time and space this provides us can allow us to focus on what matters most: our students and their learning.

It’s no secret that I’m deeply passionate about technology in education. Rarely does a day go by that I don’t learn something new, and the investment in my learning continues to be worth its weight in gold. It never ceases to amaze me how much smarter and more efficiently I can work when I leverage my technology learning in both my work and my personal life. That being said, the time and space that this affords me is not what really matters here. What really matters is that this created space allows me to focus much more time and effort on supporting others in leveraging technology to enhance student learning.  

“Meh” – how much one word can say!

I recently had the pleasure to hear from a couple students in our district on how technology has supported and empowered them as learners. Last week, our TESLA Inquiry Group (TESLA = Technology to Enhance Student Learning & Achievement) met at Rutland Elementary School to continue our learning inquiry on how educators in SD23 can best leverage technology to enhance student learning. Stefani Oakes (teacher at RLE) kindly offered to have 2 students join us for our meeting. Both the students were in Stefani’s class last year and had some powerful stories to share on how they each leveraged technology (in this case Google Read & Write) to support their learning.

*For those of you that are not familiar with Google Read & Write, it’s a Chrome Extension that supports all learners with powerful technology functions such as speech-to-text, text-to-speech, word prediction, and so much more. To learn more, check out our SD23 GSuite website (CLICK HERE).

Now in guiding the students in their sharing with our TESLA Inquiry Group, Stefani asked them each to describe what reading and writing was like before using the Google Read & Write tool.  The first young boy, said but one word, and that one word continues to resonate with me.  

That word was “meh”.  

This one word said so very much! It wasn’t even so much the word, it was how he said it. You could hear the apathy around the writing process that he felt before leveraging this technology. He went on to express that he wrote very little and on many occasions didn’t get anything down on paper at all. Imagine that one of the main methods that we ask students to share their learning/thinking (i.e. writing) wasn’t easily accessible to you. I know that I would no doubt feel disengaged, discouraged, and disheartened about my learning… I would truly feel “meh”.

The story thankfully didn’t end there. The student’s teacher, Stefani, brought in Google Read & Write as a tool that all learners in her classroom could leverage to support their learning. Many students selectively used features of Google Read & Write throughout the year, and this one boy in particular went from writing almost nothing, to in his words “with the tool, my writing keeps growing and growing”.  How awesome is that?!  Such a great example of technology’s true role in education (i.e. supporting, empowering, and ultimately enhancing the learning experience for all students).

5 Ways That “FreshGrade is NOT Facebook”

“FreshGrade is not Facebook.” 

In reflecting on what we’ve learned as a district in using FreshGrade to communicating student learning, this thought came to mind… “FreshGrade is NOT Facebook”.  

We’ve observed and heard from many educators across the district around their so called “Fresh-strations” (a term coined by our very own District Ed-Tech Consultant Graham Johnson that refers to the frustrations educators sometimes have in using FreshGrade). Some of these “Fresh-strations” include:

  • Parents aren’t logging into FreshGrade
  • Parents don’t post comments on their child’s portfolio
  • Posting pictures/videos for each student in my class/classes takes so much time

Reflecting on these “Fresh-strations” led to an epiphany that is worth sharing… “FreshGrade is not Facebook”.

Before FreshGrade even came along, many of us have had experiences in using the Social Media platform, Facebook, and I believe that our experiences with Facebook have sometimes negatively influenced how we’ve viewed and gone about using FreshGrade.

Here are 5 ways that FreshGrade is NOT Facebook:

(1) It’s not about the “likes”.

We often view how successful or impactful a post on Facebook has been based off the # of “likes” and “comments”. However, FreshGrade was not designed for this. FreshGrade was designed to communicate student learning and deepen the conversations that happen at home between parents and their children. My sister for example, rarely comments on my nephew’s posts. However, she’s a big fan of FreshGrade. Every single day when she picks up her son, they talk and reflect on the FreshGrade posts on the drive home. She doesn’t see the need to get on the computer at 10pm to post on FreshGrade. The whole point was to deepen the conversation between parent and child and the car ride home did that in spades.

(2) It’s not about getting the perfect picture/video.

A trend we see with Facebook is people spending way too much time getting the perfect picture/video (here’s a recent news article on that very topic). However, we’ve realized that a picture/video artifact is nowhere near as important as the reflection on that piece of learning evidence. A picture of some students smiling doesn’t always (a) clearly communicate the learning and/or (b) involve the student meaningfully reflecting on the learning experience itself. Sometimes we catch ourselves looking for that “perfect” picture/video or even asking students to “redo” something that they just did so you can capture it.  This is definitely one of the ways that FreshGrade is not Facebook. The evidence of learning is important, but it’s significantly more important that it is authentic (i.e. it’s okay if it’s not the perfect picture/video) and that it involves the opportunity for the student to reflect on his or her own learning.

(3) It’s not just for the parents.

Often we hear of frustrations that parents aren’t engaging with FreshGrade. I touched upon this in #1, but it’s important to note that FreshGrade is not just for parents. First and foremost, FreshGrade was designed to deepen student learning through reflection. Is it important that we encourage parents to interact with their child’s FreshGrade e-portfolio? Absolutely! However, it is much more important that the students themselves are interacting with their own e-portfolio. Our goal in education is to develop lifelong learners. Learners that can self-reflect and articulate what they are doing well and what their next steps are in their own learning journey. If we as educators are doing all the posting and only parents are interacting with those posts, then we’ve missed out on the most important players in all this: the students.  

(4) Less is more.

It’s mind-boggling to think about how much some people post on social media. I just recently read an article from Reader’s Digest on that very topic. One thing we’ve learned when it comes to using FreshGrade to communicate student learning is that “less is more”. Instead of focusing on posting dozens and dozens of artifacts, it’s most important that we focus on posts that are richer, meatier, and involve deeper student reflection and formative feedback from educators and parents.  

(5) Not all reflection should occur online.

In an effort to communicate student learning with FreshGrade, we sometimes see that we’ve swung the pendulum too far the other way (i.e in that we are trying to have all reflection occur online). There are times when it’s appropriate to post a piece of learning evidence and have the reflection occur online, however, the vast majority of student reflection and formative feedback should occur “offline” throughout the school day. Going back to post #2, the true value comes in having students reflect on their own learning on an ongoing basis (and if anything more often than not, it should happen face-to-face, in real-time).

So let’s be sure to not treat FreshGrade like Facebook.  In doing so, we can hopefully avoid running into all those “Fresh-strations”.

Be Wary of the Virtual Birdhouses…

I recently read a great quote shared by @chrislehmann on Twitter that made me think about “virtual birdhouses”.

“If you assign a project and get back 30 of the exact same thing, that’s not a project, that’s a recipe.”
– Chris Lehmann

I remember taking a woodworking class when I was in high school and every single student had to make a birdhouse.  Same steps, same procedures, same products.  I don’t recall much about how to put a birdhouse together (which is a telling sign), but I do know for sure that I didn’t use any of my creative or critical thinking skills and I certainly didn’t use an authentic design thinking process to come up with my final product.

When it comes to using technology in our classrooms, we need to be wary of the virtual birdhouses (i.e. when we assign students a project that involves creating something using technology and we get back 30 of the exact same thing).  30 identical iMovies, 30 identical slide decks, 30 identical blog posts… these are all just virtual versions of creating identical birdhouses in a woodworking class.

Unfortunately, I believe that it can at times be easier to fall into this trap when the learning involves technology. Sometimes our limited confidence and experience with technology can lead us to providing students less options and more of a recipe approach to projects (ex. having every student create a PowerPoint presentation with the same number of slides and same information on each slide).

With or without technology in the mix, we need to be sure to…

  • Differentiate and offer lots of voice & choice (ex. allow students to choose which web tool they’d like to use to synthesize, analyze, summarize, and communicate their learning).
  • Encourage students to be creative (ex. support your students in taking risks and advocate for them to put their own spin on things).
  • Rely on your students to help you and the rest of the class learn more about web tools. It never ceases to amaze me how much students know and how quickly they can figure out how to use new technology.  This is also a wonderful way to empower students and put them in leadership roles.

In the end, if we don’t get caught up in having each student take the same approach in their learning, then we can avoid getting back a class set of virtual birdhouses.


SD23 GSuite Website: Supporting You Wherever You Are In Your Google Learning Journey

The new SD23 GSuite Network website has a little something for everyone (whether you are just beginning your Google learning journey or are looking for advanced tips and tricks to help you dive even deeper).

This past summer, I became a Google Certified Trainer.  As part of my certification, I developed a variety of resources to help others learn more about how they can leverage the GSuite tools in their classroom and in their schools.  All these resources can be found on our district’s GSuite website (www.sd23gsuite.com).

To learn more about the SD23 GSuite Network, check out this mini overview video (below) and feel free to visit and navigate around the website to see what resources may be of interest to you!

Back-to-School: One thing that parents do in the 21st century that they never used to…

back to schoolIn just a few short weeks, a new school year will begin. In education, we’re so very fortunate in that we get a fresh start every year. Every September, teachers are excited to meet their new students and to try new things to engage them in their learning. Students are excited to see who is in their class (or classes) and have high hopes of doing well and having success in their academics. Parents are also excited for the new school year and also have high hopes for their children.

Parents do so very much to support their children in getting off on the right foot with the new school year. Back-to-school shopping, reestablishing routines, helping their children understand their new schedules… these are just some of the countless things that parents do to support their children for back-to-school.

There’s one more thing that many parents will do as the new school year begins…

They “Google” their child’s teacher.

With many employers Google searching their applicants, it’s not hard to imagine that many parents are doing the same with their child’s teacher. As an administrator in an elementary school, on more than one occasion, I had a parent approach me and tell me that they Googled my name. One parent in particular warmed my heart and showed me a picture she found when searching my name and looking through the images in Google. The picture was of me and her child and she shared just how much she appreciated that I took such a keen interest in helping him be successful in school. It’s something I’ll never forget. For 2 reasons:

  1. It reminded me just how much of an honour it is that we as educators get to shape and mold the most precious gift of our parents (their children).
  2. People look you up!

In a recent Google search, I came across dozens of articles on just how many businesses Google search their applicants. The low end (48% – Career Addict)… the high end (80% – Huffington Post)! These employers are hiring someone to fill a vacant position (something they no doubt care about). Parents on the other hand are entrusting you with their child (something they ABSOLUTELY care about). I have yet to see a study on the % of parents that Google their child’s teacher, but it’s not hard to imagine it would be in a similar (if not higher) range as the businesses above. When we host our next iPLAN (Parents Learning About the Net) session, I will be sure to poll the crowd and report back.

So why does this matter? Well for me it highlights just how important it is that educators, parents, and students learn about digital citizenship. It also highlights how important it is that we as educators model digital citizenship, because it will be put to the test! Parents and students will see the digital footprint we have online. This doesn’t mean we should try and have zero web presence. For one, that’s becoming more and more impossible. Even if you don’t post anything online, many of your friends and family will. I know some people that refuse to use social media, yet they are tagged in many photos of their friends and family. The second, and more important reason is that we need to model the way for the future generation. Students get plenty of examples around them of negative digital footprints, and when students Google my name, I want them to be exposed to what a positive digital footprint looks like.

Educators that are looking for a place to start, I highly recommend Digital Citizenship in Schools by Mike Ribble. Mike provides a great framework that focuses on the nine elements of digital citizenship and how to incorporate them in the classroom. He advocates that you begin on the elements that are of highest priority to your unique school community. An overview of the nine elements can also be found on his website: http://digitalcitizenship.org/.

So as we prepare for the new school year and get our classrooms and schools ready to welcome back students… don’t forget to continue growing a positive digital footprint on the web.

Prototype Cycles vs. Pilot Projects – What’s the difference?

For years I thought that pilot and prototype were just interchangeable words. To me, both just meant “let’s try it out and see how it goes”.

Recently, my thinking has changed and I see just how different these two words can actually be in practice.

I was having a great conversation around innovation with a friend in local government the other day. He was sharing with me his beliefs on how critical it is that we embrace and foster a culture of innovation in our organizations.  I wholeheartedly agreed, and echoed similar thoughts when it comes to education and just how important it is that we engage in design thinking to continually improve and deepen the learning for students and for ourselves. I also shared that where we usually fall short in design thinking is forgetting to build in iterative cycles to continually improve on our original design.  We often try something once, decide if it went well enough to repeat, and that’s that.

This is where my thinking around pilot vs. prototype changed. In my mind a pilot project is something you do to see if it meets your intended outcome (and if it does, you decide whether or not you’ll do it again).  A prototype cycle however, is a process that involves you gathering feedback, data, and observations on your prototype, with the intention of going through many iterations (with tweaks and changes all along the way).


I now see so many differences between the two…

Some may argue the difference is just semantics, but for me, since words shape our world and our actions, I’m going to officially stop using the term ‘pilot project‘ and start using the term ‘prototype cycle‘.

What do you think?


The Power in Being Second…

Sometimes there’s a major advantage to being second (or on deck so-to-speak)… especially when it comes to implementing something new in your classroom, in your school, or in your district.

I have to start with a quick disclaimer.  I believe we all need to be creative and innovative in education and that true change starts with those brave souls who try new things, with little resources, time, and support.  We can’t all simply wait for others to do it first.

On-deckNow that being said, the majority of change in education happens when we are connecting to new ideas that others are already implementing.  There are many advantages when it comes to being in the second wave of any new implementation in education. Using a baseball analogy… like a batter that is in the on-deck circle, you can leverage the knowledge and learning from the player that is currently at-bat.

Folks that are innovating often go through lots of trial-and-error before they get it right.  This can take a lot of time, and in some cases cost a lot of extra money.  When it comes to implementing new technology in your classroom or school, you can learn a lot from these innovators by asking some simple yet powerful questions:

  • What did you learn while trying to implement this?
  • What is working well?
  • What would you do differently?
  • What advice would you give to others looking to implement this?
  • What are your next steps in your learning journey around this implementation?
  • Who else is implementing this in our district (or around the world)?
  • Can we come visit your classroom/school in the near future and see it in action?

An example I can think of from my previous school is when we started looking into purchasing iPads for the classroom.  We reached out and learned a lot from some of our neighbouring schools that had recently implemented them.  They shared what worked well and what they would do differently and this greatly shaped how we approached implementing them in our school.

Like the batter in the on-deck circle, you can be observant and watch the player at bat to learn and prepare yourself for your turn.  You may even get the opportunity to pass each other on your way up to bat… if you do, be sure to leverage that opportunity to ask some questions on how you can be successful with your turn at the plate!

21st Century Learning Spaces in 20th Century Buildings

There are many challenges (more appropriately, opportunities) that we face as educators in the 21st century.  One of the opportunities/challenges that we face has to do with the learning spaces that we strategically create for our learners.

I recently read an article by Catherine Lange from Ed Surge, Architecture’s Pivotal Role in the Future of K-12 Learning, that made me reflect on this very opportunity.

Instead of focusing on what’s not in our control when it comes to our learning spaces (i.e. the actual building/infrastructure), we are better focusing on what is in the span of our control.  There are so many things we can do with our current 20th century buildings that can make them more conducive to 21st century learning.


Some items worth considering when creating your learning environment for your students:

  • Seating options.  We are way beyond advocating to not have our students in single rows.  21st century learning requires seating options that are easy to move around.  That way you can accommodate different learning structures such as working in pairs, working in groups, round table discussions, etc.
  • Movable walls.  A teacher I worked with a few years back used to use movable walls to make unique learning spaces for her students.  Some areas were meant to be more of a quiet, independent work area, while others were open and allowed for more interaction and collaboration.
  • Whiteboard tables.  I had the experience of using these a few years back and students absolutely loved working on them (we got ours from a company called MityBilt).  I’ve also purchased extra large whiteboards that you can lay down on a table for multiple students to work on (the added advantage of these is that students can then hold them up and share their learning with others).
  • Whiteboard walls.  Go beyond the table and cover your walls in whiteboard paint.  Companies like IdeaPaint provide a product that lets you turn your walls into whiteboards.  A great way to make thinking visible and get students up and moving around.
  • Technology.  This one seems to easy, but it’s worth noting.  Many applications and programs empower students to interact with others (regardless of the physical space they are in).  An additional bonus is if the technology is easily portable (i.e. a tablet or laptop).
  • Outside.  Weather permitting of course.  Courtyards, fields, playgrounds… they can all be great places for students to interact and creatively think.

At the end of the day, none of the above truly matters if we aren’t creating learning opportunities that promote the development of 21st century skills (ex. handing out fill-in-the-blank worksheets on a whiteboard table).  That being said, meaningful learning activities paired with a strategic learning environment can set our students up for powerful and purposeful learning.

Do you have any ideas on how to create a learning space conducive to 21st century learning (regardless of the building)?  Would love to hear them!

Don’t Overlook the Learning in Those “Inconvenient” Steps

About 2 years ago today, one of my Gr. 5 teachers (the amazing Sean Smith) completely shifted my thinking around ed tech in the classroom.  We were working together and supporting our students in a project that involved them researching and synthesizing their thinking in an iMovie video.  Students were engaged in the project and were quite enjoying making their learning visible in the videos they were creating.

Enter those “inconvenient” tech steps.

Once their videos were created, it was time to have them showcase their videos by putting them on their own Weebly websites that they’d be working on throughout the school year.

This meant several clunky steps for students…

  1. Exporting the video to the iPad camera roll.
  2. Downloading the video from the iPad camera roll onto a student laptop.
  3. Changing the format of the video from an MOV file to an mp4 file.
  4. Logging onto their Weebly websites.
  5. Creating a new page.
  6. Putting in a video web part.
  7. Uploading the mp4 file to the web part.
  8. …and finally, publishing the web page for others to view.


I remember thinking, it would be so much better if the students could hit one button and magically the videos that they had created would be uploaded onto their Weebly websites.  It was my good friend and teaching colleague, Sean, who completely re-framed my thinking on this.

He looked at me and said, “I actually like that it takes lots of steps.  Just think about all the skills they are learning along the way!”

Wow, was he ever right!  Those “inconvenient” steps, were actually incredible learning opportunities to help students build their digital literacy skills.  It helped them learn to problem solve, and more importantly, develop an adaptive digital skill set that is needed in order to thrive in the world today.

So next time you think… “I wish it could just be one button and done”… remember to not overlook the learning in those “inconvenient” steps.