Tech Solutions for People Problems

In this blogpost I mention serious issues such as bullying, accessing inappropriate material and plagiarism. It is not my intention to minimise these as the potentially harmful concerns they are. I mention them to offer another perspective from which to consider these issues, and others like them. If you would like help with online abuse, and are based in New Zealand, may I suggest NetSafe as your initial port of call.

With the increasing number of devices in schools, there can appear to be an increasing number of problems that need to be addressed. And with firewalls, filtering, blocking, plagiarism checkers, monitoring software, and more, there are technical solutions to all kinds of problems schools and their learners can face.

It seems reasonable. Because learners can access the internet, they’re more likely to be distracted by Facebook or other social media platforms; they’re more likely to stumble across inappropriate material; they’re more likely to copy and paste from one site into their own work.

Back in the day, I could have copied my friend’s assignment, or her older brother’s assignment from when he did the course, but now I can access a thousand papers from a thousand writers from across the globe at the click of a button. It’s more tempting, and heck, just a lot easier.

Back in the day, when I was bullied in high school, the bullying pretty much stopped at 3:30pm. There were a couple of incidents where my rather determined bullies made some cruel late-night phone calls – to the landline, of course! – but once I left the school gates, I left the bullies behind. Not their words or their harm, unfortunately, but that’s another story for another time. Now, between my smartphone and laptop or tablet, I’m pretty well constantly connected to all my friends… and to all my bullies too. There’s little to no escape, and little to no refuge.

Back in the day, we could look up the rude words in the dictionary or encyclopedia and have a nervous giggle about what we found. Now, even an innocent key word search in Google can result in unexpected and unwanted material.

Image by Kwi, Public Domain

To my mind, the thing technology has done is to increase access and volume. There is easy access to more information than you can shake a stick at. Technology has not created plagiarism, bullying or offensive materials, but it has increased significantly my likelihood of encountering these problems.

So technology is not actually the problem. The problem is with the people.

This is why technical solutions, like the ones mentioned above, will only ever go so far in addressing the issues. Ultimately, the problem lies with the mindset and choices of the individual concerned.

If I have an assignment that piques my curiosity, is open, authentic and relevant; and I understand about intellectual property, creative commons and have critical research skills, then, plagiarism checker aside, I will be more likely to create a response that is genuinely my work, and accurately attributed in the places where I have built on the ideas of others.

If I have empathy for my fellow learners, live in an open, accepting and respectful culture, and understand my rights and responsibilities as a (digital) citizen, then, monitoring software aside, I will be more likely to be a positive, contributing member of the various communities I belong to.

If I have am (digitally) literate and fluent, am supported by excellent teachers and librarians, and have robust research skills, as well as having good support networks, then, firewalls and filtering aside, if I come across offensive material as I learn, I know where to go and what to do about this.

Seeking technical solutions to people problems results in a false sense of security, and, I would argue, less capable learners. I’m not necessarily endorsing a firehose approach where filtered water is better, but I am arguing for looking at our philosophies and our teaching and learning practices. The internet is always on. And our hearts and minds are too.

The End is Nigh

This blogpost is my contribution to EdBookNZ 2016. Thank you to Sonya van Schaijik for the opportunity.


Photo “The End is Nigh!” by Mikey, CC BY 2.0

Like a precarious but game-winning Jenga tower, education is the last major industry standing extant. Critics claim the education system is broken and thus that it is ripe, nay, overdue, for disruption. Here in New Zealand, we talk about our “long tail” of underachievement and the inequalities that urgently need addressing. It is common to point to the fact that classrooms today bear little discernible difference to the classrooms of 50, 100, even 150 years ago…


CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikimedia Commons)           CC-BY-SA-2.0-CA (Wikimedia Commons)

We also know what has happened to other industries that have failed to adapt and evolve. Frequently cited examples include: your local video store, Kodak, print newspapers. These have become the cautionary tales of the modern world: warning us of what happens if we arrogantly deem ourselves non-disruptable.

We argue that now we live in a world of hyper-change. Moore’s law is regarded as immutable as a law of nature, and consequently our societies are rapidly, exponentially, unfathomably changing – primarily due to technology. Again, frequently cited examples include:

If we aren’t careful the robots will have our jobs, we will have created our own unemployment crisis, and the planet will be frying under human-created or -accelerated climate change. (But on the plus side, we will have world-wide WiFi.)

The only logical conclusion is that education needs to be disrupted in face of this uncertain, unknowable, unpredictable and technologically-advanced future. Our current students will go into jobs that haven’t yet been created. Right?


Can we just push pause on the mania for disruption and think a little bit first. I know the CPUs will get fasterer even as I type so time is of the essence, but I think a little of ‘slow down to hurry up’ might be in order here.

Let’s think about ‘disruption’. And let’s think about how we used to use the word in a non-business or technological sense. For example: were you the ‘disruptive’ child in class? The naughty one who prevented others from getting on with their learning? Has your public transport service ever been ‘disrupted’, but no need for panic because normal service will resume shortly? Inconvenient, but the status quo will re-set. Does your city or town plan road works over night in order to minimise “disruption”? Rather thoughtful of them, isn’t it?

How have we come to a place where we believe that if something isn’t working that nothing less than total annihilation – read disruption – is required? Why do we champion disruption?

I’ve been wondering about the purpose of those ‘all hail the mighty disruption’ speeches, and can’t help but suspect a motive of whipping up panic and stoking the fires of fear about an uncertain and unknowable future where we must “disrupt or be disrupted”. Nothing less than a completely radical metamorphosis is needed. The alternative is extinction. Oblivion.

disruptionLinker (2014)

Sometimes, I concur, these speakers offer solutions. But I similarly urge suspicion of the silver bullet. Teach all children coding! Follow a STEM (or STEAM) curriculum! Be agile and teach entrepreneurship – real skills for a productive and employable life! Design thinking is where it’s at! If we accept the premise that education is so fundamentally broken that nothing less than complete and utter destruction – sorry disruption – is needed, how will a one-trick pony fix it?

So. Let’s pause and think. What’s it like to be the disrupted? How does ‘disruption’ position people?

Metaphors I’ve observed include the dinosaur. This is an image that fits well with the rhetoric of disrupt or die. It is the dinosaur’s own fault for not adapting to exponentially different times, so they became extinct. That’ll learn ‘em. ‘Dinosaur’ handily connotes age here too. Who is the dinosaur in your staffroom? The older person who doesn’t / won’t / can’t get on board with an initiative, one often involving technology? Thought so. Digital immigrant? Can’t even get a passport let alone a visa.

What about the ‘resistor’? Not the piece of science equipment from the lab, but the people who resist change initiatives, often the ones involving technology. They can be identifiable by their big buts. You know, as in: “I would, but…”; “We tried that five years ago, but…”; “But the parents…” They are the naysayers, the ones with every excuse as to why they can’t, they shouldn’t, and why it wouldn’t work even if they did. Because the resistors actively resist the nifty initiatives dreamed up to prevent them from becoming irrelevant, we give ourselves permission to ride roughshod over their concerns. We feed the hungry, we don’t bother with watering the stones.

Very similar to the resistors are the “laggards”. These people languish at the bottom of Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations bell curve:


CC BY 2.5, Pnautilus, Wikipedia

They are the last to know, the un-networked, the ostriches. Chicken Little, at least, knew the sky was falling. The laggards wouldn’t know about the planned initiative because they can’t log into their emails to read about it. They’re clicking their red pens and surreptitiously marking when the principal stands up to talk about in the Monday afternoon staff meeting. That’s if they didn’t skip out of the meeting entirely, citing a doctor’s appointment. Right?

These are among the labels we use to categorise and stereotype people who don’t believe as we do and won’t blindly endorse our plans. So much easier to complain about them en masse when we lump them into a group like this. The labels become shorthand and in doing so, we lose sight of the individual: their beliefs, their thoughts, their hopes, their fears, and their stories in which they are the hero.

And who are we to do this? Nobody starts their day by deciding to be incompetent. It takes a rare individual indeed who wakes up wanting to be disrupted. Do we use the word ‘disruption’ to threaten because cajoling has failed?

So, what if, instead of the dystopian zombie apocalypse stories of ‘disrupt or be disrupted’, we could agree that the future is (truism alert) fundamentally unknowable: volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, and see what human-centred, inclusive frameworks we could employ to help actively shape the future rather than be frightened into passively accepting our robot overlords?

Frameworks like: Design Thinking, Timperley, Kaser and Halbert’s Spiral of Inquiry, Snowden’s Cynefin framework with its safe-to-fail experiments. Tools for thinking, not recipes for radical metamorphosis. Human-centred rather than top-down. Honouring the stories and the roles people play as the experts of their own lives. Inclusive: embracing of diversity and genuinely seeking to hear the voices of the unheard. Asking new, different, difficult questions. Seeing the system and exploring how we might influence it in a desired direction.

This kind of approach is respectful, empathetic. It does not mean that it is easy nor that it may not result in difficult, evolutionary changes. But it is collaborative and consensual. Empowering. Agentic. It is measured and thoughtful. And it might just create the kind of ethical, creative citizenry I personally want for the world, how about you?

Beware disruption and its horsemen. Shall we have a transformative evolution instead? After all, the future is nigh.

Acknowledgements and Sources:

  • Pete Hall
  • Annemarie Hyde

Woods, trees and on ramps

Sometimes, the more time I spend with something, the more I seem to lose my way with it. This is what seems to have happened to me in the past few months. I have apparently lost my ability to articulate the “why” of embedding digital technologies for learning. And this is a bit of a problem.

CC BY 3.0

So, in order to find my way through this inability to see the wood for the trees situation, perhaps it’s more useful to think about what I do know.

I do know I’m not a ‘techie’. In fact, I’m constantly embarrassed by my low-tech skills. I rarely know the new, cool apps, and while these can be fun, aren’t really what ignites a passion for education and learning in me.

I do know that technology in and of itself won’t make a difference to learning. Equally, the same can be said, I believe, of an exercise book, or even a teacher. Plonk these things in a classroom and there will be no discernible effect. Like any tool, it’s what we do with it that counts.

I do know that relationships and emotions make a difference to teaching and learning. Mostly  based on my own experience of being a student, as well as fifteen years in the classroom, but also because the OECD tells me so:

“Emotion and cognition operate seamlessly in the brain to guide learning….Any debate about whether learning institutions should be concerned about learners’ emotions and their development is…irrelevant” (“Nature of Learning”, OECD, p. 4)

I do know that there is, rightly, in my opinion, an increasingly loud call for learner-centred education. There are many facets to this argument. One is an egalitarian one – that it is simply not acceptable that our schooling system works for some, but not for others. Another is that a knowledge economy requires that everyone be lifelong learners. Without the skills to learn how to learn, the motivation or interest to do so, then we run the risk of perpetuating an out-of-date, industrial model. A further argument is a learning sciences one. This links to the statement above about the role of emotions, as well as showing that learning collaboratively, learning deeply, and learning connected knowledge is key. (See “21st Century Learning: Research, Innovation and Policy”, CERI) And maybe another is just a ‘gut feeling’ one. We are all different, with different backgrounds, interests and needs. One size just doesn’t fit all, nor should it, and increasingly we have the ability to meet these diverse needs.

CC BY 3.0


Maybe this is my “why”. Because digital technologies can offer significant ‘on ramps’ to this desired pathway of learner-centred education.

Again, from the OECD report “The Nature of Learning”, we know that the learning sciences suggest that the following are the fundamental conditions under which successful learning can occur:


  • “Constructive, self-regulated learning is fostered
  • The learning is sensitive to context”
  • It is often “collaborative” (p. 3)

And they list six “building blocks for innovative learning environments”:

  • Cooperative learning
  • Service learning
  • Home-school partnerships
  • Formative assessment
  • Inquiry-based approaches
  • Learning with technology (p. 10)

Learning with technology: “Learner-centred approaches to technology-enabled learning can empower learners and leverage good learning experiences that would not otherwise have been possible. Technology also often offers valuable tools for other building blocks in effective learning environments, including personalisation, cooperative learning, managing formative assessment, and many inquiry-based methods.” (p. 10)

This first sentence about learner-centred approaches has definite echoes of the New Zealand Curriculum to me: “Schools should explore not only how ICT can supplement traditional ways of teaching but also how it can open up new and different ways of learning.” (Emphasis mine in both cases.)

This call is similarly repeated in the e-Learning Planning Framework, where learning and teaching should work towards “Student-centred, authentic, higher-order, collaborative learning, and digital literacy, is enhanced by ubiquitous digital technologies.”

So here’s my own list. Technology is not THE solution, but A solution. An on ramp to learner-centred education. Technology offers us ways to:

  • Access information and people
  • Collaborate
  • Bring the world to the classroom – to be connected to the global community
  • Self-manage and reflect on our learning
  • Ensure learning is engaging, authentic, purposeful
  • Learn ubiquitously: anywhere, anytime

And I’m picking this is a good thing.

Reflecting on the edchatNZ MOOC


This is the reflection I wrote in Week 8 of the edchatNZ MOOC (Massive Open Online Course):

What I have been particularly struck by during this course is the idea of digger deeper before moving forward. The idea of unpacking the assumptions that we base our thinking on has been very interesting to me. In order to really understand our own ideas, and even the ideas of others, we must first understand the basis or the foundation of these ideas. Tentacle-like (without associated sinister undertones) these assumptions permeate all the other ideas that link to them. For example, if I believe that education is about empowering young people to take their place in the economy, then this will inform the kind of knowledge I believe is important, the kind of curriculum I think schools should offer, and a worry that automation will ‘steal’ jobs from humans. My belief in a strong economy filters through all of these other ideas too. Thinking about this has been an unexpectedly interesting thing from this MOOC. (Thanks Danielle!) Note: the thanks to Danielle, is Danielle Myburgh, founder of edchatNZ, and all-round eduhero of mine.

And yet, interestingly after 10 weeks of study, I haven’t really moved from where I started in terms of own belief about the purpose of education, or my vision about what a “future school” might be like. In the first week of the course, I said: “An education, to me, is about a whole person, and ultimately about empowering citizens.” And I couldn’t honestly say that I’ve changed this opinion one iota. Nor, as I mentioned, have I changed my vision of a “school” as a community learning hub – a vision strongly influenced by my reading of Keri Facer.

Does this mean I haven’t engaged deeply enough with the MOOC that I haven’t unpacked or challenges these assumptions of mine? Is this a reflection that I had already done some thinking in this space? Or…?

After spending a fair bit of time last year, while working at The Mind Lab by Unitec, thinking about technology and its oft-hailed “disruptive” qualities, I have become again more attuned to ideas of technology and its ability to affect us. For me, this takes the shape of a call to embracing the need for ethics, values, critical thinking, imagination – the stuff of a future curriculum?

I really enjoyed the work of Kieran Egan and thinking about why talking about education is so difficult. This gave me a framework I would like to explore further to think about the overlapping and conflicting ideas we hold about and expect from our schools. I would like to develop the ability to tune into the language people use and the conversations we become involved in to wonder from which model(s) people are operating.

‘Education’ and ‘school’ provoke an emotional reaction in us, one based on previous experiences – which is why we’re all “experts” in education. This MOOC has helped me to see that this is a function of how we have been socialised. I wonder if complexity theory can offer us a way to think outside of these systems even when we are a part of them? I also wonder how I might turn complexity theory “on myself” to explore and test my own thinking?

Studying with this MOOC, I have become even more obsessed with language and its connotations – how it can include and exclude; how it reveal underlying assumptions, values and beliefs – even with something as potentially as innocuous sounding as verbs like “work” and “learn”. And to beware the seductive follies of reductive thinking: those pesky false dichotomies, for example ‘knowledge’ versus ‘skills’. I much prefer an expansive model, one that says: ‘yes, and…’

In this same way, the MOOC has confirmed my belief (again, gleaned from Keri Facer) about the future as a narrative that we are active characters/participants/agents within. To me, this presents a vision of the future that is powerful and optimistic: our current choices have the capacity to shape our future.

And finally, I think we need to embrace the luxury of time:

  • To sit with ideas
  • To identify, unpack, challenge assumptions
  • To understand deeply
  • Slow down to hurry up
  • Not rushing to solutions
  • Gather data, research, hear multiple perspectives

My next steps are to reveal in learning more about complexity theory – prompted by this MOOC. I am currently reading and thoroughly enjoying Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston’s Simple Habits for Complex Times (2015). So, again, thank you Danielle.

Pick Me!

This post is my application for a 2015 CORE eFellowship.

#edchatNZ steering committee. L-R: Heather Eccles, Sonya van Schaijik, me, Matt Nicoll, Alyx Gillett, Danielle Myburgh, Mel Moore
#edchatNZ steering committee. L-R: Heather Eccles, Sonya van Schaijik, me, Matt Nicoll, Alyx Gillett, Danielle Myburgh, Mel Moore

My application presentation can be found here.

My Twitter profile
My Twitter profile
The kind words of Steve Mouldey
The kind words of Steve Mouldey

Marsden Professional Learning Session 8

If this afternoon’s session was at all coherent or useful, I really owe it to my PLN. I was presenting on ‘UDL’ (Universal Design for Learning), which I have been growing in understanding of over the past six months or so. Nevertheless, I was struggling to know how to do the concept justice in a 20 minute slot. Luckily though, Claire Amos had covered UDL in a #hackyrclass blogpost earlier this term, which also led me to Chrissie Butler’s blogpost. This latter post in particular I found invaluable. My own presentation shamelessly plunders her links and ideas.

My own ‘spin’ was that I attempted to follow UDL principles in putting my presentation together. For the ‘Engagement’ phase I started with the opening minute of the ‘Failing Superman‘ YouTube clip and then posed a question which groups could discuss, or jot ideas down on post-it notes. For the ‘Representation’ phase I gave an overview of UDL, and then gave various options as to how people might like to access more information on the topic. Choices included watching a video, reading blogposts or discussing a document with a partner. Finally, for the ‘Action and Expression’ phase, staff had the choice of three workshops to attend based on their needs and interests (which is standard for our professional learning sessions). Sessions also end with reflection time, which staff can complete in a way that suits them.

Furthermore, I made explicit my intention in using UDL guidelines in framing the presentation. I hope that this allowed staff to both understand UDL better, having realised they had seen it in practice, as well as demonstrated that technology is a powerful tool to allow for a range of supports to be offered. Overall I feel pleased with how the presentation worked.

Image credit:
Image credit:

My ‘Thing’

Since I began this future learning journey, I’ve been wondering what my ‘thing’ is. What would be the particular aspect of future learning that would really capture my imagination, and seem to offer the best possibilities to move forward with future focused pedagogy? It was never going to be just about integrating technology. Jumping on the bandwagon of the shiny new app strikes me as both short-sighted and not big picture enough. I wondered if PBL (project- or problem-based learning) might be the thing. But as interesting as it seemed, it didn’t seem to gain traction in my mind. Ditto SOLE (self-organised learning environments). Linked to both of these was the inquiry process. And I do think this is important, but didn’t seem to go quite far enough for me. It wasn’t going to be maker-ed, although I acknowledge the potential in this.

And then, today, it hit me.

Design Thinking might just be my thing.

Why Design Thinking? Because inherent in this process are the 3 (or 4) Cs of critical thinking, creativity, communication – and collaboration. Because the process requires an inter-disciplinary approach. Because, as the Hobsonville Point team have convinced me, the New Zealand Curriculum aligns beautifully with it. Because it seems to offer the best of what PBL/inquiry/maker-ed calls for. And because I believe it has the potential to dovetail with the values of our school, such as aiming for the highest, service, resilience.

And, crucially, because Design Thinking fits with me.

I’ve always held that I teach because I want to teach not what to think, but how to think. And I believed that English as a subject really had this potential. We read literature in order to be confronted with ideas of what it means to be human. To think about moral, ethics, how to live. But, upon reflection, I think I haven’t really aligned well with my educational philosophy. I have been teaching ‘not what to think’, but not the ‘how to think’ part of the statement. I feel it’s been more like ‘not what to think; but to think’. Which, I now think, is insufficient. However, Design Thinking does offer a concrete solution because it is a process. It is ‘not what to think; but how to think.’

So, I think, I’ve found ‘my thing’.



Marsden Professional Learning Session 6

Today’s overarching theme was all about collaboration. So, in fitting style, we had co-presenters for our ‘big picture’ pedagogy session. I was really excited that a Technology and a Science teacher were happy to talk about one way they have been integrating technology into their lessons. Some of the real bonuses of this approach were:

  • Highlighting that innovation and risk-taking is happening amongst staff
  • The inquiry-based approach both teachers emphasised
  • The encouragement to ‘give it a go’
  • The resilience both staff members demonstrated: neither implementation went smoothly the first time, but the value is such that it warrants another attempt
  • That teachers were from different subject disciplines

I really can’t thank those teachers enough who are not only prepared to try something new, perhaps out of their comfort zone, but were prepared to make their attempts public. I think this is awesome role-modelling and shows a real growth mindset. So proud!

Here is my presentation to wrap around the showcase:


Marsden Professional Learning Session 5

I was really looking forward to this afternoon’s sessions. Sometimes I feel as though I’m leading learning on something I’ve only just got my head around, and yet seem to be held up as some kind of expert – which couldn’t be further from the truth! But today was different – presenting on PLNs and Twitter – now this is something I’m passionate about, and have wonderful first-hand experiences of 🙂

I’m worried I didn’t really do the topics justice, because I was down-playing my enthusiasm for fear this would put people off. I may have downplayed it a touch too much… However, I think the presentation itself has the right amount of information and, as always, lots of links for people to explore for more learning. I also know that it is as up-to-date as I can possibly make it. I wrote it a week or so ago, but added to it at least twice as I found new blogposts! I’m also pleased that I started with a recap of our school vision, the ‘why’ of technology, and connected today’s learning to the themes of our professional learning sessions from last term. Hopefully this helps to model the kind of practices we want to see in classrooms.

Additionally, I’m feeling ultra grateful to my own PLN this afternoon. I asked for people to tweet me ‘live’ using #MarsdenPL14 to talk about PLNs and why they love Twitter so I could demonstrate the power of Twitter and technology’s ubiquity not just as being powerful for students, but for educators as learners too. And boy did they come through! I was gutted that so few people chose to attend my Twitter workshop (help-sheet here), but it runs again, so I have another opportunity to infect others with the Twitter bug…

Nevertheless, a huge shout-out to my tweeps, the #edchatnz community, and anyone else who tweeted us this afternoon – you guys rock!


Marsden Professional Learning Session 2

Future Learning Theme: Technology Allows for Different Kinds of Collaboration

Google Drive/Google Docs workshop

Today was our second-ever ‘Future Learning’ staff session.  As you can see, I initially presented on the overall theme of ‘collaboration’, and then co-ran a Google Docs/Google Drive workshop.

What I’m super-pleased with is that, contrary to the first session, I found this workshop far more successful, and indeed, even feel energised at its conclusion.  I think there are several contributing factors to this. Firstly, there were quite a few people in the workshop, so the desire to learn and participate was there. Having a co-presenter meant that there was more than one person who could help those who needed it. Also, having a very concrete ‘step-by-step’ help sheet (as attached) meant that people could work through at their own pace, with support from the presenters, or their peers around them. I think sometimes we need to remember to start off right at the beginning so that everyone can join us on the journey. If there are already experts, then they can go off and explore while the person to their immediate right is still looking for gmail on their browser.

The initial feedback from staff confirms that they were easily able to make connections between the workshop content and the future learning theme of collaboration, and that there seemed to be a real desire to explore the possibilities of Google Docs even further.  Hmmm … I hope they share their learning with me!