Who can we trust? The importance of teaching our students to interpret the news.

Screenshot from the linked article on http://www.abc.net.au

Opening up my favourite news app, Zite, the other day, one of the top stories was this eye opener from Australia’s national broadcaster’s – the ABC – news website. Titled “The Gatekeepers of  news has lost their keys”, the writer Tim Dunlop highlights a fact of life that confronts us all today, and in particular our vulnerable, naive students.

As an audience, we are no longer dependent on the mainstream media to interpret and explain important events to us.

In a previous era, we had to wait for the six o’clock news in order to see the footage of what had happened in Canberra that day, and even then our understanding was restricted according to the choices made by journalists and editors.

Footage was clipped and shaped. Decisions were made about what was important and what wasn’t, what was left in and what was left out, and the end package was presented to us as definitive.

The next day we read the newspapers and hoped to get a bit more background, a bit more context, some opinion from both sides of the argument, and again, this was all chosen and arranged by professionals who we, by and large, trusted to present events to us in a balanced and nuanced way.

If we wanted to participate…., we were pretty much limited to a letter to the editor of a newspaper or maybe the telephone queue of a talkback radio station…….our ability to participate was curtailed by the often-opaque rules of participation set down by the journalists and news editors…. They could edit our letters or simply bin them. They could decide not to take our call or just cut us off if we started to say something they didn’t like.

The authority of the media – it’s ability to shape and frame events and then present them to us as “the” news – was built upon its privileged access to information and the ability to control distribution.

……. But those days are gone. That model is a relic, though it still dominates the way the mainstream media goes about its business, and provides the template for how journalists think about their role as reporters.

This has to change.

When we can watch events live ourselves without having to wait for the six o’clock news to package them for us, or even watch a YouTube replay in a time of our own choosing, we can also be free to interpret the story in the way that we understand it.

When we can log onto our blog, or fire up Twitter or Facebook, and express our views in real time; start or join online conversations; develop, change or reinforce our views via discussions with friends, “friends” and “followers”; and share footage and stories and images and shape that information in a way that suits us, then we have moved into a world unrecognisable from the previous era of journalism.

This introduction to the article presents quite succinctly, one of the most important challenges we have as Literacy teachers today. Our students are bombarded with unlimited sources of information and opinions on every imaginable subject. Where once we would do an occasional unit on disseminating fact and opinion and identifying bias in selected reading to satisfy the mandates of our English Curriculum,  we now must make it the major focus of our non fiction reading programs. Students today spend hours on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and forums and these sites are often their first source of news. Many adults these day also have moved onto these sources as their first port of call and often fall for the first rumor they see online, treating it as fact and then posting it for others to read or view.

That’s not to say that all news on social networking sites, blogs and forums is not accurate. There are a great number of quality writers with their own blogs on every possible subject who have made it easier to learn for the general public. Today’s journalists have embraced Twitter and Facebook and have joined in on the fun of being first with the latest updates and opinions. The problem is they too are all too easily led to believe what they read online as fact and report too quickly.

And then there is the nature of media bias itself. It is easy to blame all the left or right wing bias on socialist/fascist bloggers or misguided teenagers with a camera and a Youtube account, and sure there is plenty of rubbish posted by these types daily, further infested by thoughtless nonsense from angry, anonymous commenters protected by their cryptic usernames. But they are far from alone. The age of 24/7 news has brought us an unending stream of updates that don’t have the opportunity to be fact checked or vetted by experienced editors. Errors, misrepresentations and blatant untruths and distortions are published, not just on websites, but on TV and radio news and current affairs programs daily. The irony of the ABC article quoted here is that after such a thought provoking opening, it quickly descends into a parody of the very bias it warns against.

It is for this reason we as teachers need to focus heavily on developing critical thinking skills in reading news and other purported fact based writing. While learning about life from the classic novels and researching and learning from history is vitally important, we need to shift our English curriculum more heavily towards sorting fact from fiction and recognising bias. We were sheltered in the past by the limited sources of information. That is something I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Dunlop on. But the world of information in today’s Age of Connectedness means we need to teach our students to read with scepticism. They have to judge every comment, evaluate every apparent fact, compare sources, understand context, investigate the background and beliefs of the authors of what they read, source both sides of arguments and form a balanced opinion. They have to decide who to trust.

As teachers are we doing enough for our students so they can see through the Fox News vs MSNBC (US),Herald Sun vs Age/ABC (Australia),”insert right and left wing media groups of other countries here” wars and form educated opinions? Are we giving them the skills to investigate before accepting every rumour posted on their forum of choice? Are we allowing Facebook, Twitter and the like into our schools so that we can guide them first hand in dealing with how to participate in the connected instant info world they live in? What’s happening in your classroom?

The iPad – What it should and shouldn’t be for Education

This blog originally started as a reflection journal as I begun a pilot program for using iPads at my school. My early posts ( check January and February posts ) were discussions of the pros and cons of iPads. As the year has gone by and I have more time to research, read other iPad articles and experiment more with apps and with the students using them more frequently, I’ve had time to reflect on what iPads are offering schools. I’m not going to debate what model of iPad program to commit to – 1:1 or shared. I’m simply going to concentrate on what I think schools should consider before committing to iPads at all.

What you should use iPads for in schools

Multimedia content creation
I am so sick of the tech press misrepresenting the iPad purely as a content consumption device and complaining that it is not for content creation. I think they confuse content creation with publishing their articles with a traditional keyboard. On the contrary, the main reason schools should invest in iPads IS Content Creation. I’m not talking about Word or PowerPoint documents. That’s 20th century publishing that was meant for office workers and businessmen in the first place, not school kids.

What the iPad offers to children is the ability to capture, develop and publish their learning in the creative, engaging, multimedia way they experience the world. Traditional keyboard/writing based computing held back younger students and limited older ones. Now they can take pictures, record their voices (VoiceThread,GarageBand), create videos and slideshows(iMovie, SonicPics), annotate diagrams (Skitch), explain and record their learning in screencasts (Explain Everything, Doceri, Showme), use animated puppets to tell stories (Sock Puppets, Toontastic), create comic strips or whole comic books ( Comic Life, Strip Designer) combine text,freehand drawing and pictures in mind maps (Popplet, iMindmap) and publish interactive, multimedia books that others can read on their iPads (BookCreator,Creative Book Builder). All from the one device without having to connect any other tech up with wires and search for the files. The iPad is the ultimate one stop shop for student content creation that goes well beyond what they were capable of achieving easily just a couple of years ago. The beauty of all these apps is that they are multipurpose apps. They can be used in all curriculum areas and their uses are only limited by your or your student imagination. A Word Document could only do so much. Multimedia apps can allow for so much more scope for learning.

Portable, anywhere, interactive collaborative learning
The beauty of the iPad is its portability and use anywhere capability. Desktops anchor you to a desk and isolate you from a group. Laptops are still too cumbersome to carry around and the built in cameras and microphones are too restrictive. The iPad frees you up to use it anywhere any time. On a field trip/excursion? Take the iPad along with you and do all your work live and instantly. Take pictures and record a commentary for an instant report. Record footage of your physical activity in PE classes and play back for instant feedback on your performance, in slow motion with iMotion HD. Create a documentary on the spot with the video camera and iMovie. With wifi available, report live from an event with FaceTime or Skype. The physical makeup of the iPad makes for a more social sharing environment that isn’t as easy or effective in a lab of desktops or the one way screens of laptops. The tactile nature of the touchscreen brings students together and the multimedia capabilities can be shared by a group.

Social, interactive Reading the “digital literacy way”
One of the best activities on an iPad is reading, but not in the traditional sense. If you just want to read, get a book from the library – it’s cheaper. Reading on a iPad is a much richer experience and can enhance the educational experience in schools. Reading in iBooks allows you to highlight passages and record annotated notes which are then stored and organized in a dedicated bookmarked section and look up definitions without flicking through a dictionary. Using PDF annotation apps you can do limitless note taking without running out of space on the page.

While you can do the same on a traditional computing device, the use of social bookmarking tools and curation website bookmarklets make collaborative reading a far easier proposition, simply because of the book like experience sitting with an iPad gives you. Having students sitting in a group using Diigo’s shared annotation tools allows for both real conversation and tech based note sharing that can be referred to later. It also allows for collaboration with students outside the group which widens the community of learners you can work with. Individually, finding sites to share with others and then posting them on Scoop-it, Diigo, Edmodo, sharing via Twitter or other social media sites via bookmarklets, share buttons or through apps like Zite and Flipboard just seems more natural on a touchscreen tablet rather than on a mouse driven computer.

Other

Check out my other posts on Writing, Maths and Literacy ( in the Categories section on the right) for my other uses for iPads – I don’t want to repeat myself too much. Suffice to say, the iPad has the potential to change the way we learn and teach if we take the time to research and investigate what others are doing. I have curated a wealth of resources for you to use on my Scoopit page linked at the top of my blog page as well as in my Diigo Bookmarks under the iPad tag also accessible above.

The iPad, however, is not perfect by any means and does have limitations to consider. There are some things it can’t do at all and many things that are best done on other devices. Read on for what they shouldn’t be used for in schools.

What you shouldn’t use iPads for in schools

This list is more about poor decision making about getting iPads rather than the iPad’s lack of ability to manage the task. It’s also more applicable to a school setting ( i use my iPad for a lot of things completely un-school related, which shouldn’t be a factor for getting them for school) and why you are choosing iPads over other computing options. If it can’t do the task as effectively as a “computer”, if it isn’t going to be an improvement and make a profound change to how you use tech in education, if it isn’t going to be any different to what you are already doing with desktop or laptop computers, then consider whether the iPad is really what you want.

Traditional word processing
Don’t get me wrong. I use my iPad for about 90% of the word processing I do. Most of this blog has been published using my iPad. Having said that, if you’re going to jump on the bandwagon and buy iPads and then complain about not having Microsoft Office on it, or that Pages messes up the formatting of the Word Document you just imported or you don’t like the touchscreen keyboard for typing, you haven’t thought about why you want iPads. If all your students do with tech at school is publish stories and reports in Word, then you will find your iPads being underutilized.

Replacing books just for reading or lightening the load in your students’ backpacks.
Personally, I read a lot on my iPad. But, as I outlined in the “What you should use iPads for in Schools” section of this post, I don’t just read with my iPad. Once again, it is a wasted opportunity for changing the way you foster learning in your school if your main reason for buying iPads is to replace books/textbooks with ebooks and PDF scans of textbooks. This does not enhance learning. This does not change the way you teach. Just reading books on an iPad makes no difference to education. It may be advertised to consumers as a great e-reader, and as a way of carrying around a truckload of books to read on a vacation it’s great, but if schools are going to invest vast amounts of money on iPads only to fill them up with ebook versions of novels or PDF copies of chapters from their Maths text books so our children can prop them up on a table while they complete Exercise 7A of the Quadratic Equations Chapter in their exercise books, we’ve missed the point.

If you have invested a lot of time, effort and money in Web 2.0 tools or educational management systems.
While there is much press about the demise of Flash support for mobile devices ( Android included ) and the rise of HTML5 sites, the vast majority of educational sites on the Internet are Flash or Java based. While many are free, educational versions of these sites usually cost a fair investment to use with large numbers of children. iPads don’t support these tools well. Yes, there are workaround solution in the form of dedicated iPad browsers like Puffin and Photon that use server based connections to provide useable Flash experience on iPads, but they are serviceable at best and inadequate or unusable at worst. While I have no experience of it, Moodle is widely used in schools as well and does not play well with iPads. Interactive whiteboard software like Promethean’s Activinspire doesn’t have an iPad version so you can’t create or edit flip charts on iPads with their software. So if your school has invested heavily in Web 2.0 tool licenses, Moodle like systems or have spent the last 5 years training you to make interactive whiteboard flip charts, consider the wisdom of moving to an iPad only set up.

Are you a Google Apps for Education school?
This is open for debate as I have visited schools that are 1:1 iPad schools who use Google Apps. From my experience, the user experience is not good enough. Maybe for word processing it’s functional but the Google spreadsheet experience is woefully inadequate on the iPad. If you have made a big investment in Google Apps, I’d stick with netbooks/laptops.

Website design/blog management
Web site building tools on the web like Weebly or Wix are useable and most of the publishing work of blogs can be done on an iPad. However,if you have an ICT course that is heavily involved in website building or you need to edit graphic elements or widget components of blogs, iPads don’t handle the task completely and you’ll need to stick with traditional computing.

Dedicated specialist software compatibility
Without listing them, there is obviously a huge range of software for specific purposes that aren’t supported and are unlikely to ever be supported on the iPad. While it may seem bleeding obvious, schools need to take this into account before dedicating their entire budget to a 1:1 iPad program.

Final thoughts
I started the year thinking the iPad was the one stop solution. I’ve come to believe now that a multi device option is preferable. 1:1 iPads would be great in an ideal world but the financial reality for school with substantial investments in other tech already doesn’t make it practical for a complete change. My school already has a lot of laptops and desktops in use. They are used for many valid purposes such as those listed above. It’s not reasonable to think we would replace all our resources with just iPads when there are good things already being done with them. So we are going down the horses for courses route. More iPads are likely to be purchased next year and used for all he great multimedia purposes outlined. Web tools, research, Flash and Java Ed sites, word processing, blogging, compatibility issues will continue to be addressed with our computers. I’m starting to think it’s the best of both worlds.

But what do you think? Have I under or oversold the iPad? Are there compelling reasons for iPads in education I’ve left out ? Are there other reasons for not committing to them? Share your thoughts. This is far from an exhaustive post. Join the conversation.

Who should we consult about technology in our schools?

Thanks to edtech times for this infographic
From their website:

Nonprofit Project Tomorrow aims to make student voices heard in education. Speak Up, an initiative of Project Tomorrow, surveyed 294,399 students, 35,525 teachers, 42,267 parents, and others in fall 2010 to determine the benefits of certain types and uses of technology for teaching and learning. The results are depicted in the infographic below.

20120923-154619.jpg

I think we can learn a lot from the results of this very extensive survey. On reflection, I wonder why we do things so differently to the rest of our society. Politicians, businesses, the entertainment industry, sports organisations spend up big on researching the stakeholders in their product or idea or policy. Education departments and schools too often make the mistake of deciding what is best without asking the real stakeholders in our system what their opinions are, often to the detriment of what follows.

What I really appreciate about this survey is that it focuses on ALL THREE ( I’m not including the bureaucratic side ) interested parties in education – Students, Parents and Teachers. While I haven’t seen the actual survey, this infographic suggests that in-depth questioning took place and the results encourage a lot of thinking about how we should go forward in planning for technology in schools. It also raises questions about what we as educators consider important as opposed to the parents and students think. Finally, it would also be interesting to conduct this same survey two years on in 2012, when the use of technology has accelerated so much, to see if there has been significant change in perceptions.

Student Responses
I found it interesting that the factors that scored highest involved independent activity. Students find tech beneficial in organizing their times, managing their own learning and working at their own pace. With the push towards student centered learning, this shows technology can contribute to the success of this learning strategy in the eyes of those that count – the students. It’s also an eye opener that well less than half of the students surveyed find tech as motivating or the key to easy success. This is a cautionary tale for those tech advocates ( me included ) who think that iPads, 1:1 programs and web tools are the answer to all engagement and learning problems. We need to balance our thirst for tech spending with reflection on multiple intelligences and learning styles research that stresses students have different preferences. Technology is not necessarily the answer for all students.

Another observation that comes to mind is that we have work to do on some of the skills we want to ingrain in the learning behaviors of our students. Collaboration and asking questions are important but the survey suggests our students are not necessarily using tech effectively for that, despite all the great collaborative, sharing, networking tools at our disposal. It brings home the point that its not enough to introduce Edmodo, Diigo, blogging and the like to the students and expect it to just happen. We have to work hard to show them how it will improve their learning. Obviously, we also need to do the same for teachers, parents and leadership as well.

Parents responses
I was particularly interested in this section of the infographic. Parents are often the last people we consult when we make decisions. They are often the first we get concerned about though when they start to question our decisions or pedagogies. Maybe we should communicate more with them and find out what they want. Then we can address the issues they raise and educate them in what we believe from our training and experience is best for their children.

What interested me most from the survey results in the infographic was the motivation behind the parent responses to what can help them assist their children in their learning. They want access to curriculum materials so they can support their kids. How often have we heard ” I can’t help my son because you do it differently to when I was at school.”? Technology today gives us the perfect tool for sharing what we do in school with the parents. Blogs, social networking sites, video lessons ( only 22% in this survey – before the flipping classroom boom – but it would be interesting to find out what the interest would be now ), online newsletters are practical ways to communicate how we teach the students in a contemporary classroom.

It’s encouraging to see such large percentages of parents wanting regular updates and viewing of children’s work. They don’t want to wait for reports or interviews or portfolios to come home at the end of term. They want technology to provide them access. This is a huge challenge for us as schools as we are not used to parents seeing the students work before its “ready”. There needs to be a shift in thinking about what this access to students work will entail. Parent and teacher education ( and students too) will be needed so there isn’t a misunderstanding of the difference between work in progress and published work. Technology has the potential to allow for real partnerships between all the stakeholders in a child’s education. From this survey parents want to be a part of it. We just need to make sure we get the balance right in the partnership.

Another fascinating tidbit from the infographic was the response to purchasing tech for students to use at school. Without knowing the demographics of the survey, it’s enlightening to see such a large percentage of parents willing to buy mobile devices for their children to use AT SCHOOL. It raises the weighty issue of BYOD ( bring your own device ) programs in schools. To me, this suggests there needs to be serious discussion between school and parents about the prospects rather than just dismissing the idea. Of course, just because parents might think it’s a great idea, doesn’t mean it is. Many parents aren’t necessarily in control of the tech use of their children and don’t understand the pitfalls of such a program. Again, it means Parent Education in responsible digital citizenship, their responsibilities and how they can support their children will be needed but if they are prepared to make the commitment the discussion needs to be had.

Teacher/Student responses
Some telling observations can be made from the results in this part of the infographic.
First, it is apparent that digital literacy is not clear to either teacher or students in some cases, particularly in analyzing, interpreting and detecting bias in media stories. It suggests we need to have a conversation about new Literacies with our teachers and why technology has an important role to play in this.

Not surprisingly, students don’t place importance on checking their sources. This is a big part of digital literacy – the more children are using the Internet for both research and presenting their findings in a public forum, the more we have to change their behavior. They are exposed to so much info in such easily accessible and unchecked ways, we have to place importance on convincing them this is important. We think of them as ‘digital natives’ but they’re still not skilled in the nuances of its use. We have to consult teachers, parents and the students themselves in this area.

One final observation here is the low percentage for producing digital media reports from both teachers and students. Again, a lot has changed in the last two years since this survey in the proliferation of web tools in schools. Nevertheless, less than one in three teachers and only 40% of students thinking digital publishing is important is interesting to consider. This is one area I would really like to investigate at the local level before making massive investments in technology.

Final thoughts
It seems to be accepted that we need to invest in technology on a large scale to prepare our students for the tech rich world they are going to be living in. Before making this investment though, it seems to me we need to make sure we consult with everyone involved. A lot of time, effort and most of all money can be wasted if we don’t find out what our clientele wants. That’s teachers, students and parents. Decision makers need to consider all stakeholders. When you look at the numbers of people involved in this survey, its hard to ignore the importance of the responses received. I would love schools to conduct a similar survey to find out what everyone involved thinks. It would allow for considered decisions to be made rather than hasty purchases. What do you think?