Thursday, August 20, 2009

Social Technology & Education @ Harvard

Sandwiched between two great motorcycle rides through upstate New York & Massachusetts, I attended the Social Technology & Education conference put on by the folks at Elgg. They held it in the Radcliffe Gymnasium, a former gym converted into a very elegant discussion space.
The conference evolved organically: people volunteered to present and participants came from a variety of academic, medical, non-profit and commercial situations. There was little advertisement and people heard of it through word-of-mouth (okay, well, Twitter). Now, unfortunately, almost 280 people signed up but not everyone showed; I think by making it free, people felt they could sign up, take a space and not show. Always have a nominal fee, just to show some level of commitment!
The presentations were varied so I'll pick out the high points for me; given my background, a lot of it covered issues we've already had under consideration for a while.
  • It was a real pleasure to meet Dave Tosh, who despite his Scottish accent hails from Oshawa of all places! His most important reminder for me was that "Just because they use Facebook doesn't mean they are tech savvy... their mates are on Facebook so they are motivated; they're not motivated to do your site" So not only do we need to ensure they have a reason to use our online tools we also have to provide some level of training and support; it won't be automatic because the students (faculty, staff & parents) don't want it or need it to be.
  • Real innovation comes when we take something for granted ... Christopher Sessum's presentation mentioned this, and apparently it comes from Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody. I haven't read it but picked it up from Chapters when I got home from Boston. Sessum's notes and presentation are here; he has a similar presentation style to mine, so you'll need to read the notes. I can remember when we first started out at RCS and discussed this issue with Paul Kitchen. We wanted the laptop to be as fluid to the student and teacher as the pencil or chalkboard was. We were only a decade & a half ahead of our time.
  • Christopher's (and later) presentations mentioned Etienne Wenger and Keith Sawyer a lot: I haven't done a lot of reading that discuss the development of communities of practice so they're now on my reading list. Developing communities is a lot of what we are trying to do with PCMI and so reading about the progression of professional learning networks has become important.
  • Shelley Blake-Pollock, from TeachPaperless ran through his work with Twitter. Shelley takes a more blunt approach than I'm comfortable with although I think we perceive the end result similarly.
  • Liz Davis did an excellent rundown of Ning; she's convinced me to use it for my courses (if I can't get Elgg up and running in time). We're using it right now for the PCMI group but Liz has given some great examples in her classrooms. There are some limitations, in particular using mathematics, but it's really the conversation and discussion, not notation.
  • Jim Klein showed how his district in Canyon Country, CA used Elgg as a structure to build a community of faculty, staff, students and parents. I'm not sure whether or not his theoretical understanding of the process parallels Wenger & Sawyer (I've got read them, first) but the practical outcomes that he showed, linking students from across grade levels and subjects, speaks volumes. I can only make linkages between my own classes and classes outside my school but I think beginning a conversation with a larger academic community is important. I'd love to be able to use a tool like Elgg in this fashion but it would require considerably more time to develop & program than I have. Hence I'll likely be using Ning.
For a one day conference, there was lot of excellent discussion. That it was put together so quickly and with little budget gives me hope for things we have planned in the future!

(Most of this post was lost thanks to my crappy Dell tablet... I'll come back and relink things tomorrow.)

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