Do School Better Season 1

Tools of the Trade Part 1

By June 27, 2016 No Comments

Episode 23 – Doris Korda and Tim Desmond


Doris: So you know you’ve spent 20, 25 years as a history teacher. You’ve been an instructional technologist, you’ve been an author, etc.  It was maybe a week in, when we first started working together, we were just learning each other, and we were teaching this thing, and I said, “So if you could do absolutely anything that you love to do professionally most, what does it look like?” Do you remember that?

Tim: Vaguely.

Doris: Okay. I said, “Give me an example of something you worked on recently that you loved.” Do you remember that?

Tim: Now I remember the conversation, yeah.

Doris: And do you remember what you said?

Tim: Yeah, it was building out Haiku modules.

Doris: Yeah.

Tim: Really exciting, huh?

Doris: Yeah, and we’ve gone through so much, you and me, personally, together. This was two years ago, almost. But I remember, very specifically, you saying, “I had to do blah, blah, blah. I sat down at 2:00 in the afternoon, and at 9:00, Joy, your wife, said, “Are you coming to dinner ever?” And you were stunned that you’d been doing this for seven hours. I remember the times that you said, right? So this was a long time ago, and a lot of water under the dam since . . . under the bridge. I always say this wrong, anyway.

Tim: Close enough.

Doris: Yeah. So that was about one weekend. We partnered, and you built an extraordinary learning platform for an entirely different educational model where we were using problems for students to learn, and others are using in all kinds of different classes.

You’re teaching them how to build their own. Please tell me about it.

Tim: Where to begin. Well, 1971 . . . no, I won’t go that far back. When I first started teaching, this was the early ’90s, and I remember being at the Peck School, and we were in Suzie Pignatello’s classroom. And they had just run the phone line to the lone computer in her room, and we were signing on to AOL. And we were all crowded around the computer, and the first thing we did was look up sport scores. But I remember that, and that wasn’t that long ago. In the big picture, the early ’90s was not that long ago.

Shortly thereafter, I got into web design. I learned how to do HTML coding with Notepad, changing the color of the background by using the hex value. It was so exciting.  But in all of that, I also have to say that my mother typed my papers for me in college, because I didn’t even own a computer. I didn’t go to the computer lab.

I mention that, because a lot of times in my career, because I’ve sort of been on this dual track of education and technology, people have said things like, “Oh, well, that’s you. You know technology. I couldn’t possibly do that.” That always bothered me, because I didn’t receive a degree in computer science. I didn’t go to school for it. I was all self-taught, and I learned through colossal failure.

That’s how I learned a lot about technology and tools for teachers. I wasn’t offended by it, but I felt like people didn’t really understand that it’s not out of anyone’s realm. If you’re willing to take a chance and to try something and to mess up, that you can learn this too.

I never thought technology was important for the sake of using technology. I taught myself web design, because I wanted to create a website for my classroom. I wanted kids to be able, from home, to look at their assignments. If they got home from school, and they forgot or they didn’t write it down, that’s what drove it.

Doris: That’s awesome, yeah.

Tim: Everything I’ve done in technology since then has been sort of mission-driven, like there’s been a reason why I’ve taught myself certain things. So for this class, it was just natural for me to think, “Okay, how can we create a system for students that will be accessible to them, easy to use, and serve our purposes from an educational objective. Not because we want to say we can use technology.” So that’s been my overall approach. Technology has to serve a reason, and that you learn technology by using technology.

Doris: Yep, yeah. Just like when you learn to be a writer, you always say, by writing, yeah. So this is such a different kind of model, and it’s a model where the in-class students are doing. The reading and the creating and the listening and the watching happens outside of class.

There’s so many different aspects to it, and you built this really wonderful platform for the students and for us. We’re working with educators from other schools who don’t have any facility, really, with technology, and don’t have resources, and don’t have anything. Yet you’re working with them, telling them, “No big deal. Here’s where to start.”

Talk about, first of all, when you built what we’re using. What are and were some of your starting assumptions and givens about it, and then also go into what you say to these educators, when you’re helping them. Because they come out so thinking you’re a god, and I try to tell them, they’re so wrong.

Tim: I’ve got them fooled. You know, there’s really . . . let me think about. I’m going to have to get in the weeds a little bit on this, and I hope I’m not going to alienate anyone who’s not interested in technology, but I think it’s important to put this in context.

Doris: Sure.

Tim: LMS’s, Learning Management Systems. They’ve been around a long time. And really, it’s just a fancy word for using some sort of web-based tool to manage your class. Colleges have used these for years, Blackboard was a big one, and Moodle, and the newer generation things like Haiku and Canvas.

The idea is that you log onto this website, and all of the resources for your class are there, for you and for your students. Assignments, due dates, handouts, projects, it’s all under one umbrella, so to speak.

There are hundreds if not thousands of ways that this can be done, and I’m very careful to say that I don’t know the right way. There is no one right way. There is sort of the best tool for you at the time.

I had, as an instructional technologist, I built out, as you recall my evening of bliss in Haiku modules. You know, Haiku was one I had a lot of experience in, and as an instructional technologist at Hawken a few years ago, I was building out modules for our teachers. Canvas is sort of a lot like that. Those are great, and they served that function at that time.

When I came into the Entrepreneurial Studies program and sort of took a few days to look around and see what the kids were doing and see what our objectives were, and thinking about a broader base. So we’re very fortunate at Hawken to have a lot of resources, and I recognize that. But I also wanted to think like, “Okay, how can other schools do this, that don’t have those same resources?”

Doris: Right, because we’ve wanted to build it in a way that anybody could get it.

Tim: That’s right, that’s right. So we looked at that landscape, and I decided Google was going to be where I was going to start. I had no sort of long term plans. I’m not a Google affiliate. I’m not associated with Google in any way, but there are a number of reasons. I find myself explaining this to a lot of teachers who are in that same decision point of “What do I use to build this class on?”

I chose Google for a number of reasons. The first one is that the basics of Google is free. Anyone within your school or organization, or outside of it, can set up any of the tools. I won’t get into the details on that, but things like Gmail and Google Drive, and all of those things, are completely, 100% free. That was a big thing. That was important to me.

The second thing is that Google is fairly ubiquitous. Whether you have an iPad, a Droid, a laptop, you have the same level of access. So I wanted students to have that feeling that is in the real world. So if they’re on the bus to an away basketball game, and they forgot they needed to add something to the Google Doc for their team, they could pull it up on their phone. So that’s sort of where it came from, and I built this all on that Google platform.

There are a lot of conversations around what’s the best and should things be standardized? And what about Dropbox and what about Microsoft One Drive, and what about Canvas, etc. etc.? My fear with going with something more proprietary like a Haiku or a Canvas is you create a gatekeeper.

It’s not even really about cost. It’s about the mindset of if they change something, or what if that business gets acquired, and they kill that product? What does that mean for all the resources you’ve created with it? That’s not to say that that isn’t possible with Google, but right now in this day and time, like if I were going to put any money on a cloud-based tech company being around in 10 years, it’s going to be Google. Maybe 10 years from now, someone will listen to this, and I’ll be totally wrong.

Doris: Oh, you were wrong.

Tim: But as opposed to some of these other companies, so that was sort of the basis for the decision. So when we’re hosting workshops, and we’re training other educators how to do this, I always get asked that question, like “Why Google? Why not this X Y Z?” I say, “X Y Z might fit very well for you, but here’s why I chose Google.” And whether they agree with it, they understand the rationale. And that’s the learning for them. It’s just understanding all those far-reaching consequences of making that choice.

Doris: Right, so we have educators come to our workshops, or come work with us here at Hawken, who are saying, “Wow, I want to do this project-based learning, but I’m really nervous. I don’t know how to go about it,” and we take them through things. They also say, “You know what? I’m not an instructional technologist. I don’t have the experience, Tim, that you have. There’s no way I can build something from a learning management system. What do you say to them?

Tim: Yeah, there’s two things I say to them. First of all, I swallow the lump in my throat.  They’re like, “Yeah, but you can do this. There’s no way I could.” I go, “Okay.” I pause, I let that pass. And then I have two ways I respond. The first one is I say, “Put the kids in charge. If you’re intimidated, or you’re afraid, or you’re insecure, just ask the kids.”

Like, “Hey, can someone in here set up a shared Dropbox for you?” I guarantee you, within five minutes it’ll be done. Someone in that room, whether they’re sixth graders or seniors . . .

Doris: Well, yeah. Even the middle schoolers, right? We’ve worked with middle school . . . yeah.

Tim: They will absolutely know what to do, and they will be thrilled to show you how to do it. They will be gracious and proud, and they’ll feel valued, and everybody wins. So that’s the first thing I say is, “Put a kid in charge.” The second thing is whether a kid is in charge or whether it’s you, just do something, one thing really simple.

So if you don’t  know anything about Google Drive, for example, and you want kids to compile their research into one central location, then use one Google Doc. Create one Google Doc, share it. Again, if you don’t know how to share it, ask a kid to share it out. Start small, pick one thing. Get your feet wet. Do it, so that you start to understand how it works, and then at your own pace, and as you need it, you can start to then build it out.

Doris: And you know, I’ve learned so much from you I can’t even begin to say, but one of the things, as you were talking about, I’m reminded of is the numbers of times, especially in the early when we were really building all this, you said, “Don’t worry, Doris. Just do what comes naturally. You can’t break it.” Do you remember? You kept saying, “You can’t break it, don’t worry.”

I had to be a user of what you were creating, and for me, it really was, always, always has been, it’s about how do we accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish? But when you talk to other educators too, that advice is so great. Start with something simple, and then don’t worry, you can’t break it.

Tim: Yeah, and that’s sort of a lie. You can break it.

Doris: Yeah, yeah. Now? You’re going to tell me that now, that that was a lie? I can’t believe it. You lied to me so regularly.

Tim: You can break it, but you can fix it almost instantly. That’s why I say like even something as simple as making a change in a Google Doc, you can go back and recover every revision that’s ever been made from that Google Doc. So you’re really not hurting anything, you know?

People try and pin me down, which I love. They’re like, “Oh, so you use Google. So what happens next year? Like, “I don’t know. I’m using Google right now. There might be a reason why we decide to do something else. I think that’s where the traditional instructional technologists and technology people in schools in general, they tend to dig their heels in on a particular system.

I totally get why they do it. It’s because it’s easier for them not to change. So if you go with what you’ve always been doing, it makes it easier on the tech staff to facilitate that. But the technology isn’t there to make the tech staff’s job easier.

Doris: Yeah, so interesting. Now in our learning management system, and I don’t want to pull you into the weeds, but I think if you just describe a couple of these, not all of them, a couple, it says a lot. So one of the spaces that the students have is where they put their TED Talk reviews, okay? It’s a real simple thing, but it’s incredible how useful this . . . can you describe that?

Tim: Yes, we use this particular strategy in a number of different ways, and it’s a simple Google form, where the responses of the online form get input into a spreadsheet.

So you can think about a number of different uses for this. So what it looks like is you get a link, or you go to a website, and there’s a pretty standard form that we’ve all seen, and so you fill out your name, the title of the TED Talk, the link to it, your basic rating, what you thought of it, and maybe a one or two sentence recommendation, suggestion observation line.

Doris: Just a comment, right?

Tim: Yeah, a comment, something. You hit “Submit.” You’re done. You could do that from your phone, you could do that from your iPad. What that does in Google backstage, is that information then goes and populates the columns and rows on the spreadsheet, and then that spreadsheet is viewable by anyone you want to  make it accessible to. So now that one form gets one per line. So now you can look at a spreadsheet and see all the titles, all the links, all those comments in one place. That’s just one little example of how you can use a Google form to a spreadsheet.

Doris: Yeah, and the way that that connects to the learning purpose is maybe the second or third day of class we assign a TED Talk for the students to watch, and maybe it’s 18 minutes or something like that, a typical TED Talk kind of . . . you know, 15 minutes. It’s something that even two or three days in, we’re pretty sure this particular bunch is going to find really interesting. And the next day they’re on fire about the TED Talk, and we let that go for a while.

Then we say, “You know, there are thousands and thousands of these. Do you think there might be something you’re interested in?”

“Yeah, oh, yeah. That was great. I loved that.” So “All right, so one thing you’re going to do every night . . . and you get to choose what you want to  watch. Just find one you want to watch. And, by the way, if you choose one and you start and you go, ‘I’m actually not liking this,’ stop right there.

“Don’t continue to read the book if you’re hating it. But find one that works, and then fill out this form every night, and it’s a simple form that you set up. And oh, by the way if you don’t . . .  and this becomes their nightly homework. And then, by the way, if you don’t know or have really a thought about what you want to watch . . . and some of these TED Talks are really short, it’s not a long, lengthy assignment. You can watch it on the bus.

“We have this place where you can go in and look at this long list, that students not only in this class, but in all the classes before you, have given their thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down and had a comment so they can see, ‘Oh, I loved that kid who graduated last year. Look, he loved this one.’ So it’s so much more powerful. It’s so simple what you set up, but it matches entirely the purpose.”

Tim: Well, the main objective is not to collect the TED Talks and the spreadsheet for us. I mean, that’s a side benefit, but it’s really what you’re saying. It’s giving the kids a starting place and giving them a resource that makes it really easy. And that’s what the technology should do.

Doris Korda

Author Doris Korda

More posts by Doris Korda

Leave a Reply