Alexandria Online

Saturday, April 26, 2014

I can hear you learning

My 14 year old son is learning a Beethoven piece that is actually too difficult for him right now: sonata 8, Pathetique. He misses notes and feels his way back to the right key. He plays too fast and goes off the rails, then he goes back and traces his steps one chord at a time. He plays and he listens, plays and listens, plays and listens, trying for different tones and dynamics. When he's ready he makes the instrument thunder for a few measures.

I cannot see him learn when he is reading or listening. I suppose I could smell him learning if he was learning to cook. But when he is playing the piano I can hear him learning distinctly and clearly.

Much of what a teacher does is to serve as a witness to the lives of children. This passive activity is powerful. When we watch over children, they feel the pull of our expectations. How often have we used the term "the look": I gave him my "look" and he got back to work right away. We are looking and listening.

We distributed iPad minis to some of our varsity coaches. The have very high quality cameras, stability control to improve the shakiness of handheld video, they are light and sturdy and their screen is just big enough for two people to look at comfortable. Now, when a kid says, "coach, I did it just the way you showed me," the coach can play back the action and show the athlete what the problem is. Now the student can see herself learning.

Providing students with information is one part of education. But there has to be a two-way signal. Students transmit as well as receive. It is very important that their transmissions be received by peers and teachers. Solitary learners are rare, and even solitary learners are motivated by an essentially social impulse to engage with other minds.

Your students are sending you all kinds of signals. Tune in and reply.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Bandwidth's Best Friend: Electricity

The guy on the right is me standing next to my best friend, a big Detroit Diesel emergency generator. Today we had serious electrical problems on campus, but our data and voice network never went down. All of our teledata equipment is plugged into emergency circuits that are fed by our on campus generators.

All day the generators have been roaring away, as demonstrated by the open flap on top of my friend's exhaust pipe. Anybody with a fully charged laptop, desk phone or iphone has had uninterrupted internet and voice access. Anyone with a desktop was out of luck.

I saw laptop carts with fully charged batteries rolling out to their destinations, kids in common areas working away on their own laptops, and our 5th and 6th grade one-to-one students didn't miss a beat.

That's what I like to see: all 'net all the time, even when the power goes out. Backup power sources are a keystone in the foundations of the internet. Without generators and batteries, it would be a different internet - an interrupted internet. The world doesn't want an interrupted internet. We want it on all the time.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Check Signal Strength

My son is spending his junior semester abroad in Khatmandu, Nepal, studying the economics of developing countries. He is just beginning an independent project to study the hidden economy of the city, where few pay taxes and everyone dickers for everything. It is estimated that the hidden economy of Nepal may account for 30% of gross domestic product. When I was in college, this is not what people did when they studied economics.

The lad is also a planner. When we bought a new dinner table last year, he asked us to keep the old one in the basement for his first apartment. When he reads about the cities in this country and all over the world in the media, he thinks about what it might be like to live there, for a while, for ever, alone, with a family.

He and I often talk now about raising a family, finding community, building a career. I am happy to give him advice on these subjects, but I am profoundly skeptical of any actual value I might provide in my advice. I am, after all, just another old guy.

But I surprised myself; I came up with a great one-liner: "prepare for a career that does not exist right now." I was so happy because when it came out of my mouth I realized that I agreed with myself whole-heartedly. It wasn't just baloney.

I am a Director of Technology, or a Chief Information Officer, or a Head of Information Services, or whatever you want to call me. We all know what it means. But when I began my career in education, the job I currently do did not exist and the department I manage had not been created. So the advice that I'm giving my son is based on my own experience. The pattern is that there is no pattern.

What my son needs as he navigates his intellectual and professional life is good information. He needs a strong signal. With so much information available in so many forms, he needs to stay tuned. I need to stay tuned - finely tuned - just to keep my job.

This year we had not an internet outage but an internet slowdown. First time that's happened. It lasted a few days and my job approval rating plummeted even though there was nothing I could do about it. The incident underscored an important new reality. We can't teach without a network anymore. More specifically, we really need the internet. So my advice to schools is this: check your signal strength.