Learning 2.0 in a Web 1.0 World (or, the “One More Thing” Problem)

I’ve worked at AISB since August. As IT Coordinator my responsibility is to manage all things technical – from making sure that the lab computers have the right software installed to helping teachers create a blended learning classroom to managing the school’s online presence. I’ve definitely done more of the former than the latter. I’ve followed these principles:

  • Before you help teachers use technology, you need to ensure an acceptable level of access.
  • An acceptable level of access means “does not disrupt the normal flow of class.” If it requires more effort than it takes to grab a length of butcher paper from the supply room, then most teachers aren’t going to bother with it because they are educators, not computer mechanics. I’ve found that even having to go to a lab is enough of a disruptive that it makes technology use an exception or disruption, not an integration.
  • The important thing about technology integration is not how impressive it is – it’s how intuitive and seamless it is. Technology should be used because it makes the class a more enriching and efficient learning environment, not because it’s what everyone else is doing or because it lets you do something new. You can be an amazing teacher without using technology, so getting teachers to integrate technology requires that it be obviously – though not necessarily immediately – superior to what they’re doing currently.

Following these principles to create a Learning 2.0 environment has been tough, though, because my international school – and quite a few others in Africa and around the world – are stuck in a Web 1.0 world.

Remember these? My school actually still has some being used as library catalog terminals. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Stopping teachers from giving up

A lot of schools get left behind in the “bleeding edge” discussions about technology integration because they don’t have the resources to leverage the latest tools. Last year I participated in the fantastic COETAIL program and attended a Google Apps summit. I learned about all the cool things you can do when your students have access to a fast internet connection and personal internet-connected device. The problem was that at my last school a significant part of any assignment involving connectivism entailed a great deal of problem solving on my part to give my students access to the tools they needed (though once they had the access, the learning was great). It was the dreaded “one more thing” problem – that using technology added more work to teaching. Here at AISB, I face that problem even more, since our internet connection is glacial, our computers are aging, and our budget is too limited to fix it all.

The danger is that teachers will give up in frustration. I work with an amazing elementary teacher who does e-portfolios with his students on Blogger, makes mind maps using Xmind, has his kids create PSAs using his iPad, and dreams up other deeply enriching activities that embody the collaboratively creative spirit behind technology integration. For the first two months I received regular emails from him complaining about how the internet was too slow to upload his photos or to load the Blogger interface and questioning whether he should continue to integrate technology at all. And it was a fair question, especially when teachers have so many responsibilities competing for their time.

My efforts since August have thus centered around making AISB’s computing resources as reliable, accessible and intuitive as possible on a shoestring budget. The results:

  • Leveraged NetRestore to roll out an imaging workflow for our two computers labs, making it easy for us to roll out more current software packages
  • Deployed Papercut to manage our printing environment, giving us the ability to make printing more accessible for students since we can charge them for B&W and color print jobs
  • Repurposed old PCs into Linux Mint-based Rosetta Stone ESOL workstations.
  • Consolidated our old faculty resource sites into a single portal based out of our SIS, to make it easier for teachers to access curriculum and administrative documents
  • Virtualized our print server, router, and bandwidth management solutions using VMWare ESXi and a disused XServe, thereby making most efficient use of our resources
  • Set up pfSense as a router, web cache, captive portal and traffic shaper, allowing us to let each student have a device on our Wifi network while managing access and enforcing fair use policies
  • Clarified customer service expectations for the IT department (including myself) to make us as responsive as possible
  • Streamlined our progress report workflow to deliver the most essential information while greatly reducing the amount of time, paper, and manual labor required to generate them
  • Set up a scanning workstation in one of the labs
  • Managed the entire MAP testing process
  • Taught three secondary school preps and supervised three other elementary classes while doing all of the above

Communicate your way around problems

Along with working on the school’s infrastructure I realized that good communication and education is just as important as having great resources. For example, I sent out this email to teachers explaining why the internet was so slow. It didn’t fix anything, but it explained a problem that most teachers found baffling and unpredictable. I received numerous appreciative replies. But it was about more than managing expectations, because I want my teachers to set their sights high. Rather, it was about finding ways around problems and making sure teachers could be self sufficient in those solutions. I pointed out a couple of ways that teachers can download YouTube videos, and I’ve since seen a marked rise in their use – rather than letting teachers be deterred by the low bandwidth, I found a way for them to do just what they wanted. I also steered teachers away from from using Gmail’s web interface and got them using Mail.app so that they could read and compose emails even if our line was congested.

Come back down to earth

With a slow pipe, moving services into the cloud is not a good option for us. Sites like Glogster and Prezi are just too slow. Aggressive web caching with squid has helped, but I’ve realized that investing in desktop software and locally hosted services is the way to go. I’ve set up a Friendica instance on site so that teachers can do fake Facebook projects complete with wall posting and comments. I’ve done trials with ToonBook and Comic Life since they run locally. And I’ve looked into making our locally hosted instance of Moodle more robust in its content hosting abilities by experimenting with owncloud. But the nice thing about services like Glogster is that they obviate the need to teach design and how to use a complex program. You could make a digital poster using Indesign or even Pages, but you’d spend a lot of time teaching the program, leaving less for content, creation, or collaboration.

Now that I’ve worked on the issue of access to technology, I can spend the rest of the year helping teachers to use it. And I’m hoping that I can share my experiences at the upcoming Learning2 in Addis conference with other schools trying to do Learning 2.0 in a Web 1.0 world.