Ponderances of Steve

August 5, 2011

Teachers Need Mentors, Tutorials and Aggregators

Filed under: Coaching,MOOC — Steve LeBlanc @ 9:03 pm

LeadershipDay11 LogoI was inspired when I read this post  CALLING ALL BLOGGERS! – LEADERSHIP DAY 2011, (Twitter hashtag #LeadershipDay11). It said on Friday, August 5, 2011, bloggers should “Blog about whatever you like related to effective school technology leadership.” Unfortunately, I did not have time to write a good tutorial or deep think piece. What I could post is what I believe are the three most important resources that a teacher of computer technology could have: Mentors, Tutorials and Aggregators.

But first some background. When I use the word “tech”, I mean all introductory computer technologies that might be used or taught in schools. This includes things like social media, programming, hardware repair, smart phones, web search and online teaching.

This is a challenging time to be a teacher. Added regulations, economic cuts, troubled kids. We need our kids to be better prepared for a technical future we are racing toward. But how do we ask our teachers to do that? How do we ask them to teach better use of technologies to students who sometimes have more experience than the teacher? How do we even begin to hold schools accountable for teaching certain skills when our administrators are unsure of what to measure?

The problem is not that we lack quality information and resources to teach such tech skills. It is readily available online. The problem is that the good information we need is often buried under a pile of mediocre or faulty information. As more and more bloggers come online to “create useful content” and “generate revenues,” we find the quality of their posts faltering. They get rewarded for dramatic stories and page hits, rather than information quality.

Take, for example, something as simple as a web search for buying a computer hard drive. If you know the brand, you can easily find it online and buy it. But what if you don’t even know what brand you want? Does it even matter? Do some hard drives last longer and get better reviews than others? Do some come with better warranties? Which online vendors have the best prices, service and reputation? More importantly, which vendors should you avoid at all costs? Recently I needed a hard drive. I could buy a 500 GB drive locally for about $60 including tax. But I got a Seagate with great reviews in only three days for under $40 delivered from a world class online vendor called http://newEgg.com. I could just as easily have ordered it from a company known for hidden charges and terrible service, if I were shopping on price alone.

Doing a simple websearch looks so simple that you can explain it in about a minute. Once you’ve done a search yourself, you feel confident you have no need to learn any more. But what about doing a powerful websearch? That takes some training. You have to learn how to use what are called “operators” and “Advanced Search” in order to do highly specific searches. You have to read the Help files of search engines and the Tips articles on blogs. You have to care enough to get good at the basics of real web searches.

But why? When search engines are so good at guessing what I want, why do I even have to learn how to use operators for more refined searches? Because sometimes, you just can’t find what you want with a simple search. You get too many results. Or worse, you think you’ve found it, but it is not a quality source. Just because it was on a web page does not make it true.

One of the computer literacy skills students need is advanced websearch. These skills are so important that I feel schools need to have monthly drills for all students. Why monthly? Because you tend to forget what you don’t use regularly. And even if you don’t use advanced search skills now, you will absolutely need them in the future.

So at one level I really am telling teachers to train students in Advanced Search skills and to test on it regularly. That would be great. But you won’t find that in most tech curriculums. Why? Because it looks too simple and no one on the tech team saw the importance of it. They had no reference for its place of value.

Unless you’ve been in the industry (blogging, business, web development, computer repair, whatever), you have no way to know what is most important. If you are lucky, you are told what to teach and what sites to use. If not, then you do your own search and hope for the best. The teaching of Advanced Web Search is only one example of the many areas in which teachers need a mentor.

Learning tech is necessarily a social event. You can’t learn it alone, except in very small slices. You can’t possibly have learned in college all you need to teach your students now. By the time teachers graduate, much of what they learned was outdated. Those teachers who learned tech skills did so with the aid of others. They had people available to answer questions. Ideally they had a mentor as well.

 Teachers Need Mentors

Teachers need the guidance of seasoned tech mentors. It’s not simply to teach them all they want to know, but rather to point them in the right directions. That mentor need not be a consultant, but it can be. Teachers need mentors to help them distill which skills are most important and enduring for students. If a mentor can also teach, that’s great, but it is not the best use of their time. It is their wisdom and experience you want, more than their knowledge. The more time mentors spend teaching you the basics (which you can learn online), the less time they have to review your plans and answer your big questions. The greatest gift you can give to your mentor is to make effective use of their time, take reasonable risks and accomplish greatness. A mentor should point you to local business resources, tutorials, forums, social networks and online events, such as Twitter Chats for educators. They should even assign homework. They might even be a tech education evangelist. You need people who can share that vision. Mentor homework might look like this: Use TwitterFall and TweetGrid to follow #LrnChat and #edChat and #blogChat on Twitter. How will you find the time they meet?

 Teachers Need Tutorials

Teachers need great tutorials that walk them through what they need to do in order to launch a new program, step by step. Take student blogging, for example. Today it is almost as easy to set up a blog as it is to create an online email account. The problem is learning which ones are easiest to set up and use, and which sites allow for the best kinds of privacy your students deserve. Which features do I need to enable? How can I minimize my administration time and setup a sort of dashboard of all the student blogs in my class? None of these things are particularly hard, but figuring it out on your own takes a long time. One could argue that it’s not even possible to do it well on your own, not without a good social media network to point you to great tutorials.

 Teachers Need Aggregators

Finally, teachers need great aggregators. The term aggregator, as used in social networks, refers to people who review and collect the best resources in an area of expertise. Ideally they also publish them for others to view.  Jane Hart at Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies is a world class aggregator. No matter how great your mentor is, no matter how extensive your tutorials are, great aggregators are a joy to behold. These people love reviewing things. They love to distill the good stuff from the pile. They love being helpful and sharing what they’ve learned. What sounds like a burdensome request to you may be a great challenge to them. Students often make great aggregators, especially if you will coach them in the skills required to get there. Dictionary.com also defines the word aggregator as: a web application that draws together syndicated content from various online sources and displays it in a single location for the user’s convenience.

Questions you might ask an aggregator:

  1. “Find me the best, easiest, and safest sites to create student blogs for our 4th grade class.” That might be very different than creating a blog for a high school class.
  2. “What’s the fastest way for our team to create online documentation on this project?” Notice I said fastest, and not the most secure. Such nuances matter. They are where great aggregators excel.
  3. “What are the top 10 sites and articles on teaching students to do their own crud detecting online?”

There are many things a teacher needs in order to succeed in presenting technology to kids: money, training, books and political support. But to excel at tech training for our kids, teachers need a solid foundation. That foundation includes mentors, tutorials and aggregators. All the rest can be worked out later.

Some Resources for Tech in Education

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