Reflections on Pearson Canada’s Social Media Summit

“There are unknown unknowns – things we do not know we don’t know.” Donald Rumsfeld, 2002

I recently listened to an interview with author Matt Taibbi who writes for Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal. Taibbi has written several important articles about US financial scandals and does a great job of understanding and explaining complex financial issues to readers. The interviewer asked Taibbi how he was able to learn about the complex workings of finance when he had no background in the area and Taibbi responded by saying he called people up and said “’Tell me something about something.’ I didn’t know enough to be able to ask questions”.

That’s the position Pearson Canada discovered they were in. They are transitioning from being an educational publisher to…something else. They know that social media is an increasingly important part of how educators are connecting with each other and helping students learn, but don’t know what social media is, how it works or how educators are using it.

Therefore, Pearson Canada hired a group of educators to come to their offices for a day and talk about social media in education so that they could start to learn about it. Pearson Canada staff facilitated the discussion, set the focus questions and listened and learned. They wanted to know what they don’t know.

At least that was the plan. The assembled group contained several notorious “shift disturbers” (ahem) and it was a mere 20 minutes before the first presenter was unceremoniously interrupted. For the rest of the day the organic and chaotic nature of free discourse, facilitated by social media, was the process, as the ‘summit’ lurched from one topic to another and connections were made and explored.

Somewhere in that ‘mess’ the real purpose of the gathering became obscured to those observing through social media and some in the #OntEd  twitter-verse became confused about what was actually happening. Was this a conference? A workshop? Why didn’t they know about it? Why weren’t all welcome? Why did this small group feel qualified to ‘speak’ for all Ontario educators about social media? Where was the diversity of voices? (parents? students?)

At the end of a long day I’m pondering a few questions and answers:

Was the Social Media Summit exclusionary? No, no more than any other job is exclusionary. The message that this wasn’t a conference or a workshop, but a focus group, wasn’t well communicated outside the event. The intention of the summit was simply to give Pearson Canada insight into current social media practice in Ontario and what some of the issues are with social media use in classrooms. I assume this is part of a process for Pearson Canada, the first step along the path, and that there are many other steps to come, many other voices and viewpoints to consider.

Why Did I Go? The same reason I go to attend other professional meetings, for the people. I respect those who invited me and knew there’d be other knowledgeable, passionate educators I’d learn a lot from. If Pearson Canada can glean something out of those interactions, provided they don’t alter the process, I’m fine with it. I tried to make sure I didn’t change what I said or shared because of the context. I think I was successful, but I need more time to fully reflect on it.

Engagement is a great way to understand something and to affect change. Education corporations have a role in Ontario education, and I’d rather they were engaged in dialogue with educators, in some form, than not. Pearson Canada asked educators for input. That’s a step in the right direction that I want to support and encourage.

What About Pearson Canada? I’m not sure where they go and what they do about social media. It will be difficult for them to engage in social media until they change their corporate culture. Using social media successfully requires transparency and a willingness to engage in messy dialogue. People and organizations have to be comfortable with that. An active and engaging social media presence could go a long way to improve the image of Pearson Canada and their relationship with educators, but they need to change in order for that to work.

Overall, I’m glad I participated. Learning from those who attended was a privilege. I wondered why it took Pearson Canada to get educators together, face to face, to talk about social media in Ontario education. I hope it’s a conversation that is just beginning and will continue in other venues.

The Case Against Social Media In Education

Many educators are advocating for the inclusion of social media in education. They argue that since teen usage rates between 80-90% and growing, students must develop effective electronic communications skills in social media and schools should help them do that. Using social media in schools can also leverage connections that enrich the educational experience and develop important learning skills.

Before schools run headlong into Facebook, Twitter, the classroom we should pause and consider the dangers. There are significant and compelling arguments against using social media in classrooms. Nothing is ever all good, and efforts to include social media in the classroom experience must consider some of the drawbacks. Only by guarding against the dangers can we responsibly help students use social media in their learning.

What are the arguments against social media in the classroom.

  1. Sleep With Dogs, Wake Up With Fleas– Social media and teenagers have a far from spotless record. Popular media is peppered with stories about social media and cyberbullying, child predators and simple distractibility. Currently, social media is a ‘wild west’ where the landscape changes daily and the rules are poorly defined,  misunderstood or non-existent. This isn’t the kind of environment parents want their children using. In addition schools boards aren’t willing to accept the liability resulting from social media use. Social media must be more stable and the risks to students minimized before it becomes a fixture in classrooms.
  2. Self-Definition– The teen years are time of self-definition for students. danah boyd points out that what students want is to congregate and engage in the trial and error process of self-definition outside their family. This process used to happen in malls, parks, etc. but increasingly teens aren’t welcome in public spaces spaces. Teens are using social media as a proxy space for this process of self-definition. The intrusion of adults and schools into teen social media prevents this from happening. To facilitate proper social development of students schools need to steer clear of teen dominated social media spaces.

  3. Technical Infrastructure– Effective use of social media in schools requires devices and bandwidth. Schools are developing this capacity but technical infrastructure is still lacking in most locations. This deficit has made trends such as FlipClass and BYOD very popular, as educators shift the provision of devices and bandwidth onto students and families. Schools can’t effectively use social media until we have devices for all students and adequate reliable bandwidth to connect them.

  4. Differentiation– Social media, like any other form of communication, has advantages and disadvantages. Communicating through social media works well for some and less well for others. In our rush to help students develop good digital citizenship we must remember that that social media might isn’t every student’s “cup of tea”. Teachers using social media in the classroom are often early adopters and advocates. Some students aren’t comfortable with online communication. We need to respect that and ensure that students have other options available and are free to choose what works for them.

  5. Distractions– Knowing when and how to disconnect from social media is a difficult skill to develop and use consistently. Having a device that connects you to all human knowledge and everyone you know and then asking you to ignore it is exceptionally hard. Sometimes student use of social media is inappropriate and prevents certain kinds of learning. If students are engaging online rather than face to face they’re missing the chance to develop important social skills and other ways of learning. The presence of social media in school may be too distracting and prevent learning for some students. We need to support those students and help them develop useful coping strategies.

None of these issues are insoluble, but they are real issues. Until they’re addressed social media won’t be a complete and integrated part of our education system, and our students won’t be getting the benefits that using social media as part of their learning can bring.

I’m moving

I’m operating several other blogs on and it became unworkable to keep coming back over here, so I’ve decided to shift my blog to

You can find it here.

I plan to leave this up, but you can find all these posts over at the new blog, plus any new stuff I can think of.


Why does school need to change? Because students have changed,

I always enjoy The Mindset List put out by Beloit College. It’s an annual list that comes out at this time every year that itemizes all the things that have changed in the world since this this years cohort of students entering university were born.  I think my favourite from this year’s list is that students entering university or college this year have never lived in a world without hand held Nintendo gaming devices 🙂

I think I enjoy it because it reminds me that our students are not us. They don’t see the world as we do and so we need to always be thinking about that and trying to find new ways to help them learn and understand the world.

I skipped ahead a few years  and pulled out an abbreviated list of things that are true about this year’s grade 9 class. I hope it provokes educators to think about all the fundamental ways their students see the world differently from them.

Things that are true about students entering grade 9 this year:

  • They’ve never seen a physical airline ticket
  • They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it.
  • There has always been football in Jacksonville but never in Los Angeles.
  • A significant percentage of them will enter college with some hearing loss.
  • Women have always piloted war planes and space shuttles.
  • There have always been blue M&Ms, but no tan ones.
  • Simba has always had trouble waiting to be King.
  • The most shot at man on television is Mr. Burns not J.R.Ewing
  • They have always enjoyed school with a digital yearbook.
  • Herr Schindler has always had a List; Mr. Spielberg has always had an Oscar.
  • History has always had its own channel.
  • If you say “The Twilight Zone” to them, they’ll probably think of vampires, not Rod Serling
  • Two-thirds of the independent bookstores have closed for good during their lifetimes.
  • Lou Gehrig’s record for most consecutive baseball games played has never stood in their lifetimes.
  • Genomes of living things have always been sequenced.

In Praise of the Public Library

My class and I walked to the public library today to hear two Canadian authors talk about the importance of reading and writing and promote their latest books. As we walked back I thought a bit about the whole concept of public libraries and it made me a little sad at how much our civic values have shifted.

I imagined trying to create something like a public library today.  I think you’d get laughed at, saying you wanted to create a building where people could go and borrow books at no cost. Even better is the idea that the public purse buys the books in the first place. They’re not provided by a corporate donor who has their name plastered on the outside. The library belongs to all of us. Amazing!

Of course, the public library is a long standing institution, so we don’t question it, but it harkens back to a time when we believed in taking care of each other much more than we seem to today. And it’s hard to think of something, other than schools, that’s done more to promote literacy than the public library, to say nothing for it’s role in promoting a myriad of other good works.

As we phase away from paper books and towards e-books I’m not sure what the role of the public library will be, but I’m very glad that they exist and have existed. Our societies would be much worse without them.

The How and Why of Saving Local Schools

When considering school closings in Ontario there is little doubt that we need to reorganize our school system, but the current process for doing it is profoundly broken.

Enrolment in Ontario schools has dropped by 120,000 pupils over the past decade. There is significant excess capacity in the education system and the austerity minded McGuinty government is coaxing schools boards into closing schools, especially underused, small urban schools.

The province has created the Accomodation Review Committe Process to handle school closings. The ARC Process is the procedure that school boards must follow if they think a school needs to be closed. The ARC Process mandates the factors to consider, the timelines to follow and the public consultation that must happen.

This seems good and proper ‘on paper’, but in reality it gets quite messy. What hasn’t been accounted for, and what has been missing in the government’s funding formula for years, is that schools are not merely places where children are educated. Schools have many other functions and meanings.

Schools are a social hub in many neighbourhoods, like the arena or the grocery store. They are one of several “community anchors” where neighbours meet and connect. Sometimes people are there for school events like a play or ‘Open House’, and other times it’s for a yoga class in the gym, a soccer game on the back field, chatting as the kids work off steam on the playground equipment or just saying ‘Hi’ as they pick up the kids at the end of the day. These activities can and do happen in other locations, but it’s unlikely that they’re as organized around the local community as when they happen at the local school.

More significant than the social function of the local school is it’s symbolic meaning. The local school provides a link to the past for some people. They find it comforting that the school they attended is still there, serving their community. Many parents like the continuity of siblings attending the same school.

Schools are also a symbol of a vibrant, healthy community and a hope for the future. When real estate agents try to sell buyers on a house, one of the features they highlight is proximity to good, local schools. Schools are on the list of things that make a neighbourhood desirable, and so losing a school is seen as a step backwards that may result in lower property values.

Urban communities trying to revitalize and grow will find it difficult to attract young families without a local school. Young parents aren’t thrilled with putting 4,5 & 6 years olds on a school bus in the morning. They like the comfort of having their little ones taking their first steps out into the world close to home.

Consequently, people don’t give up their schools willingly. No matter how rational and sensible the arguments are, no matter how much the figures add up, people want to keep their local schools. So they fight to keep them open, through the ARC Process. The collateral damage of this fight is divided communities as neighbouring schools are pitted against each other, trying to prove that they, not the star bellied sneetches, should get to keep their school.

The ARC Process is ponderous and almost cruel in the way it lets communities believe they have a chance to save their school. Some schools have to close. There have to be losers and nobody, not the school board or the Provincial Government, wants to be the ones to tell committed, angry citizens that they’ve lost.

We need two things to solve this problem:

  1. Create an independent, arms length body to quickly and efficiently review board applications to close schools. Give them power to say ‘yes, or ‘no’ so the school board can get on with the business of reorganizing. This shouldn’t take more than 60 days. Treat it like taking off a band-aid. It’s got to be done, so do it quickly so the healing can start.
  2. Adjust the funding formula to recognize that schools are not just learning factories, but at the heart of communities. If we want strong neighbourhoods lets put our money where our mouth is and financially support the things that create connections. All of this pays off in better, healthier citizens, lower crime rates, improved economic growth, etc.
People for Education: “Declining Enrolment/School Closings

The “Apatow Model”: 21C Learning as Improv?

I was just listening to an interview with veteran actor Jon Lithgow talking about making a new movie with Judd Apatow. Apatow is the director of most of the funniest movies made in the last 10 years. Lithgow talked about how different Apatow’s movie making technique is from other directors he’s worked with.

In Apatow’s method, he starts with a basic idea in the script. He brings the actors together and has them start performing. Apatow then sits behind a black screen and encourages the actors to improvise with the basic premise. He prompts, offers suggestions and encourages them to experiment with different approches. The cameras are rolling constantly as they do this.

Lithgow reports they may record 20 minutes of film to produce just 50 seconds of actual on-screen work. They can do this, of course, because the filming is digital and the technology facilitates the exploration. No need to worry about wasted film.

It was interesting to hear Lithgow, a classically trained actor, contrast this with traditional theatre, where the emphasis is on learning the lines and trying to reproduce them perfectly, according to the writer and the directors will.

This is a lot like the contrast between traditional education and 21C learning. In traditional learning the teacher (director) tells the students what they need to know and the students try to learn it perfectly and reproduce someone else’s vision.

In the “Apatow Model” students are co-creators. The teacher (director?) starts with a question, a problem or premise and then supports and guides students as they solve the ‘problem’ through trial and error. After lots of error and experimentation the best ideas are selected and it is shared and ready for evaluation. Our use of technology allows for and facilitates experimentation and trail and error because the resources we use (information, knowledge, etc.) are no longer scarce.

Interesting to see these changes being applied  in other activities. I may have to get myself a black screen for the classroom 🙂

What is the ‘D’ in BYOD? Discrimination? Divide?…

Is this an iPad or just an empty bag?


BYOD or Bring Your Own Device is the workplace practice where employees bring their own personal devices to work and use them at work for work.

This is an increasingly popular workplace practice for three main reasons:

  1. It saves companies money, as the cost of the devices and for connectivity is shifted to the employee.
  2. Employees are using devices they are more comfortable and familiar with, and so are more productive.
  3. Devices and software that users bring are usually more cutting edge and up to date, again boosting productivity.
It wasn’t long after companies started implementing BYOD policies that  cash strapped schools began discussing using BYOD in educational settings. Schools, like many organizations, are facing huge expenses as the public, educators and students are insisting that technology be an essential tool in education.
Unfortunately many advocates of BYOD in education have forgetten that schools are not workplaces, and the wholesale adoption of BYOD in the classroom may leads to some very nasty consequences.
Shifting the cost of devices and connectivity onto users in a classroom means families and students have to pay. This is an equity issue. Public schools are not selective. Unlike companies they accept any and all students, and some of those families and students don’t have the resources to provide their own devices. Unless we provide technology for those students to have access to devices they’ll be left behind.
BYOD in educational settings also creates further inequity within the classroom and between schools. Some students will use the latest, up to date devices, others will have older, less functional technology, and others will be left with even older, board provided devices or none at all. We already have a huge Digital Divide in society.  BYOD policies bring that divide into the classroom and allow it to further affect student learning.
We need to decide what matters and put our education dollars where our mouths are. If we value equity in education, and believe students need to learn with and use devices, we must provide them for all students in the classroom. Allowing students to bring in their devices may be a way to enhance or add to a student’s learning in special situations, but it can never be allowed to become the norm.
A full-scale implementation of BYOD in classrooms would  significantly  disadvantage large groups of low income students and create a significant gap between schools and between students. A system with have and have not schools and classrooms with have and have not pupils isn’t good for any of us.

“The Power of Ontario’s Provincial Testing Program”: My Initial Response

We're not writing EQAO this year!!! Hooray!!!

The culture and attitude towards standardized testing is shifting, in society in general and in education and parenting circles especially. The US movement for parents to ‘opt out’ of standardized testing for their children is one example.
Other Examples:
The good folks down at EQAO poked their nose into the wind, sniffed and decided they needed to get the word out that testing is good and great and have produced “The Power of Ontario’s Provincial Testing Program” a glossy 22 page book designed to inform the public how EQAO tests “…contribute to public accountability and to the continuous improvement on the part of every student in Ontario’s publicly funded education system”.
I had a chance to look through it today and here are my first reactions:
  • The case is repeatedly made that many educators use EQAO data in planning, so therefore it’s useful and necessary. The point that’s not mentioned is that we use the data because we are required to. Every year we are mandated to sit down and review last year’s data and discuss what we can do to move scores higher. It’s isn’t a choice. If you ask simply “do you use the data” the answer will be ‘yes’. Try asking a few deeper questions such as “do you want to use the data? do you think it’s reliable?” You may get a less biased view.
  • This also doesn’t account for the fact that educators try to protect their students from the impact of EQAO tests. Teachers are working hard  to make sure students come out of this year’s EQAO tests with their self-esteem in tact. That’s another reason educators use EQAO testing in our planning, in an effort to protect students. If students HAVE to write the tests we’ll do our best to prepare them because we are professionals, but that doesn’t mean we think it’s a good thing.
  • Apparently a 2009 Auditor General’s report found that EQAO tests “…are consistent in difficulty from year to year”. Maybe the AG doesn’t remember, but when grade 3&6 testing started it took FIVE FULL DAYS but is now just three part days. That doesn’t sound consistent to me. Anecdotally, teachers think the test changes annually and that standards are lowered to make the numbers look good.
  • “results are valid, consistent and reliable indicators of students achievement’- Don’t agree. Every year some the student results I see are not consistent with the student achievement in the classroom. Some students do much better and others much worse than what they show in class. Some students are good at pencil and paper tests and others aren’t. That’s why we use a variety of methods to evaluate learning, unlike EQAO. What’s more reliable, a year of in class observation and assessment or a three day snapshot?
  • Sixteen pictures of happy smiling children are scattered throughout the report. We have kids looking at globes, writing on blackboards, sharing jokes with teachers, etc. Only two of the pictures show kids that might be writing EQAO. Even the art director knew that writing a test isn’t fun.
  • EQAO touts the fact that it only costs $17/student/year to conduct the test. That’s the equivalent of about $500 for each and every class or an iPad per class if you want. I think an iPad in every classroom every day, all year will improve student learning more than three days of testing for those few students in the testing grades.
  • The report says “Unfortunately, the availability of the data they yield has led some groups to place distorted value on the results or to use them to rank school performance and make judgments about overall school quality. ” I think that’s firmly aimed in the direction of The Fraser Institute and their annual rankings of schools. I’m glad the EQAO doesn’t approve of this but the statement rings hollow. As my grandfather used to say, “If you sleep with the dogs, you’ll wake up with fleas”.