Google Code-In

Ooooo this is so exciting! Every year, Google opens an open source development competition for students of between 13-17 years. This is Google Code-In.Google chooses a number of open source organisations and these issue a number of tasks. The way this competition works is that once students enrol, they can choose the tasks they want to do from those available and once they complete one task they go to complete another, and another, etc. There is a limited time frame of about 5-6 weeks finish their chosen tasks. If the students manage to carry their tasks they can win some cool prizes, with a grand prize of a trip to Google’s Mountain View Headquarters. Currently the Google Code-In competition is on-going but you can either keep a look-out for next fall or else hurry up and enrol now – you still have a few days to participate!

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Community Canvas -a community-building framework

At the GDG Pan European Lead Summit, we were also introduced to this really awesome community-building framework. First of all I have to mention that this framework is licensed under the creative commons act, and therefore this is available for interested users to make use of. First of all it is important to define the elements of what makes up a community. Somehow I am used to writing about communities of practice, communities of inquiry and participatory cultures in online media. However this workshop made me go back to the basics of what a community truly means. The basic roots of a community trace back to people – a community is made up of people, for the people, so that people feel a sense of belonging. It is not about the organisation per se, and although the community is defined by the people making it up, the people within it should not be defined by the rules of the community. The scope of the community canvas  is to provide community leaders or organisers with the right tools to create meaningful relationships for the people making up the communities.

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The framework is made up of 3 sections dealing with identity, experience and structure. The identity aims to define the community and the goals that drive it – therefore in this section leaders pose the questions of who the members of the community are and why they are part of this community. It seems rather a part of rhetoric but one of the issues that is grossly overrated is that of communication and it seems rather ironic that in a community that doesn’t function community lacks! Therefore it is important that concepts, ideas, thoughts and visions are clear for everyone. Who are we? What do we want to do together? These are crucial questions to ask. The second section of the framework deals with the experience, and therefore we have to think about how the community per se can add value to each of the individual making it up. As with any other relationship, for a community to work out, there needs to be a relationship of give and take. This means that as leaders we have to ask: what can our community give to its members? This is the part where rules are clearly stated, as are the community member roles. Let’s all give and take value from this relationship. The third section of the framework is all about the structure of the community. Therefore one has to think about the organisation of the community, about funding mechanisms, and about how the data from the community is managed, valued and used. The community canvas is a great tool that is accompanied by a guidebook and a template for questions leading the definition of the community canvas framework.

This is a great tool and one which I am definitely looking forward to use in the future when helping to build more communities!

GDG Leads PanEuropean Summit

Here I am at Google Startup Campus Madrid, attending for the first time ever the GDG leads Pan European Summit – meeting other community members and for once I am here not to give talks or lectures but to learn, and network with other like minded people.

Today the focus is on Conflict Resolution with an excellent workshop being led by Pedro Rubio. Rubio introduced us to this concept by telling us immediately that we have to change our way of thinking. Now this is so much easier said than done – especially in the context of conflicts and resolving conflicts. Most of the time, when there is a conflict, there is an internal problem which we need to fix and the way of fixing it is changing the way we think. 

Whether it’s for the workplace or whether this is for a personal need, we need to shift from our personal perspectives to try and think about common needs – and find strategies to solve the situation and achieve the needs. 

There are thoughts and feelings – and most often these are driven by needs. To identify the needs one has to ask the question – Why? Why do I want this thing to happen? What is my basic need in this? Needs are never in conflict. It’s the strategy to achieve that need that can be in conflict. 

Everything we say or do is ultimately driven by our needs.

In a conflict between 2 or more people there is the issue of thoughts and actions. When the communication between the people lags, one has to connect feelings and needs with the other person/s. This is a three-dimensional relationship.

Worldwide statistics show that 66% of the workforce are not engaged in work and work places. This means that they will do their work but will not go to any extra lengths. 14% of the people are engaged – which means they will always be open to go to extra lengths at work – they are active, collaborative and energetic. The rest of the 20% are actively disengaged – and will go to creating conflicts. 

So when we are in a leadership position the situation changes to one where as leaders we take into account the needs of others. And the more we take into account these different needs, the stronger will the leadership be. We have to distinguish between needs and wants. I may want something but that does not necessarily relate to my needs. 

Despite good leadership conflicts will still arise because of three main reasons: 1. different perspectives, 2. overlapped systems, 3. feedback not given. Feedback is most often given gratuitously, yet it is an important aspect of conflict resolution.

But how and when should feedback be given? When feedback is given for recognition, one makes an observation without judgement, whilst addressing what needs have been satisfied. This is called honest feedback. When feedback is given for improvement, we discuss what could be done for that person, or for that person’s actions to be better, and why these could be better. What needs would be satisfied when this action or behaviour is improved?

Now this relationship management and conflict resolution is so very much easier said than done. But fear not, says Rubio, the key lies in practice, practice, practice! 

Education: Connected, disconnected or inexistent

I haven’t written a blog post for ages now. It is not that I was off blogs. I think the main reason was that I was lost for some time in a sea of voices that were very confusing… so much so, that I felt I had nothing to say. Anyway today I am attending a thematic meeting on Connected Learning for Adults organised by the Directorate for Lifelong Learning as part of the National Lifelong Learning Strategy… big words – are they hype? Will something happen?

At the moment, in Malta there have been a number of meetings. I have attended one such conference on ‘The State of Digital Education’ (here is a Storify link to the tweets published on the day). There has also been an EU Summit organised by the Commonwealth Centre for Learning just a couple of weeks ago.

So the meetings are happening, both here locally in Malta and even more so abroad. But it seems to me now, that we are talking and meeting and we are not really doing much tangibly. Let me get to the title of this blog post and start deconstructing it bit by bit.

Let me start by Connectedness … what is connected education? I mean what is it really? The  persons who came up initially with the term Connected learning way back in 2004, were George Siemens and Stephen Downes with their essays, and writings about the connected learner, connectedness and how it happens and what really creates connected education. Their theory, which they termed as a theory for 21st century learning was much criticised. I loved it. I latched on to it and I still believe in it. In short being connected is about an individual, who is in control of the meaning he/she constructs through the connections, online & offline,  tangible & intangible, physical & virtual. The problem is that people like me hail this theory but people who actually do the teaching with the younger generation, children and youths may not only not be aware of it, they believe that it is not what education and learning is all about. Even parents do not believe that education has to be connected… they believe education is equivalent to learning what needs to be learned so that their children get a certificate. And the sadness of all of this, is that this mentality gets stronger as the children get older, in such a way that after these young people graduate, if they ever make it, they’re people with very limited skills and abilities. The only skill they have mastered is how to make it through exams. But arguably that is not what life and work is all about is it?

What about Disconnectedness? What is it and why is it happening? To my mind, disconnectedness conjures this image of schooling… disconnectedness is happening with young people and even teachers in schools. The only connection that I see happening in schools, is partly with curricular books. I say partly because as part of the strategy which young people adopt to make it through the exams, they wouldn’t even read the assigned readings or books, but read only the sections which one would predict would emerge on the exam papers based on previous ones. So what we have and what is happening is a huge disconnectedness of the youths, with knowledge because knowledge to them is incomprehensible. My 7-year old son asks me ‘Why learn, ma?’ and I answer, ‘Why indeed, it is for you to know about stuff around us’ – but for him this is completely disconnected to whatever happens in school. What happens in school is that if any one of them asks a question which is not part of the syllabus then they are either ignored or else told to concentrate on what the teacher is talking about without receiving an answer to their question. Now I don’t want to really generalise, but this is the impression I get from what I observe, and from the discussions I keep hearing around me.

So what about Education? Is it inexistent? Is it all dark and gloomy. I really don’t know. From what I see happening in Malta, I am not really that hopeful. Every time I talk with teachers, educators and students, I get this feeling of hopelessness coming from their end. There is a lot of frustration, but people keep holding on to the fact that in the end, we get people obtaining certificates, and therefore that is fine – education is happening. We desperately need a change in culture, a mind shift… so many people have been repeating this over and over again, but it is not happening. We need a shift in the mind set of parents, of employers, and of politicians – we need a shift in the way teachers and students think about education and knowledge and what learning really is… this is what I believe we need… how do we actually start? That is the million dollar question.

Technology in Education: An Overview

From blended learning to computerized testing, digital and online technologies are reshaping the classroom experience for millions of students.

Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.edweek.org

It is interesting to note that with all the developments that are happening in technology, we’re still far off from implementing these in our classrooms. There’s such a chasm between what technology is able to do and how teachers are able to exploit it for teaching… one keeps on wondering about what is causing the chasm, is it the rigid curriculum and syllabi we are burdening teachers with, is it the lack of resources and poor infrastructure or is it a matter of attitude and wrong perceptions? 

See on Scoop.ittech to learn

Digital Literacy is New… Digital Literacy is optional … Busting the Myths!

Following up on my previous post where I attended a public talk given by Bryan Alexander and Alex Grech, I have decided to write a bit about digital literacy and my thoughts about what this digital literacy monster. Both Bryan and Alex were also leading the National Digital Literacy Conference held in Malta on the 20th November 2015. The title of this post, is a snippet I borrowed from Bryan Alexander’s talk on Digital Literacy and its deconstruction.

Digital literacy has been overused and abused by many people who want to impress education policy makers. I know this is a strong statement, and I am maybe generalising. But I feel that digital literacy is not about teaching technology in schools, or teaching technology to our student teachers. When someone becomes digitally literate, then that someone starts understanding more the impact of technology on non-digital living in society. So digital literacy, and becoming digitally literate involves skills that are much broader, and run much deeper than learning about office applications or how to use the interactive whiteboard. So how do we do it in practice? How do we become digitally literate? I don’t think and I don’t believe that taking lessons, or formal training is going to help someone become digital literate. Becoming digital is about the experience, it’s about immersing yourself in the virtual realm – not unequipped with basic skills… these basic skills do not include knowing how to use tools or applications, but they include skills related to communication, the practice of ethics, knowing how to understand and interpret information, being critical of information, creation and production, problem-solving… so if these are the underlying skills for a successful digitally literate citizen, what’s new in digital literacy? So many people might say that digital literacy is a new subject – to be taught in a way that a language or a science subject might be taught… here’s whats new… No digital literacy is not new – it’s about bringing all the skills which we should be targeting in education and which absolutely everyone agrees should be what education is about, and applying it to the digital medium, which primarily uses the Internet as the network connecting people, information and multiple media together.

Is digital literacy optional? No – it shouldn’t be… as teaching shouldn’t be just about teaching content. Teaching is about instilling a love and passion for the subject, it’s about kindling curiosity about knowledge, it’s about helping someone else connect their own dots to create a meaningful experience. Living in today’s society implies some kind of digital knowhow… but digital knowhow is not being digitally literate… my 6-year old can meddle around with my smart phone or with my laptop but is he digitally literate ?- No! He still needs to develop crucial skills related to his social, emotional and cognitive growth that would make him digital literate… can school help him become digitally literate ? I am still hoping (am I being utopic?) that yes… but it will only happen when schools and policy makers, start deconstructing the monster of digital literacy, and viewing it for what it really is… applying the right skills (there are many of course… but these are 4 general umbrella skills associated to digital practices: communication, critical approach, creation and collaboration) to the digital and online medium.

 

Is social media controlling our lives?

This was the title of the excellent public talk I attended yesterday delivered by Bryan Alexander and Alex Grech  in Malta. My take home with me from this talk can be followed from my tweets from the 19th November but there are a couple of principles which I would like to discuss further.

  1. Social Media as bringing out the best and the worst in humanity. Both speakers made reference to the recent Paris terror attacks, and how social media was primary in not only keeping contact with the survivors, but in also offering support (“#PorteOuverte (open door) to offer shelter in their homes to those stranded in the French capital as well as emotional support). Facebook’s safety check app (and its controversial use (or lack of) for the parallel attacks in Beirut) was also part of the discussion. But we also need to view how social media is in fact helping display the lack of empathy, the hatred and the vilification of humanity, because people take to the screen as though there isn’t another human being at the end.
  2. Alex Grech joked about the matter of our presence as social media. He asked… do people actually use social media to be more visible? For instance, in an event such as yesterday’s talk, so many people registered their “interest” in that event by clicking a button on the Facebook event page. How many of those were truly interested – asked Alex. This is quite true and also quite sad really. Maybe this is also a brief glimpse into what drives humans… people want to be seen and heard, and the consequences of what they say (or type) become quite irrelevant. This is social media’s double edged sword… let’s give a voice to everyone – but really and truly what that voice carries is irrelevant to the drivers or the founders of the social media platforms. And this causes sadness, and pain in many instances.
  3. Bryan Alexander told us – let us stop romanticising the media of the past. People everywhere can frequently be heard saying – we were so much better when we were young… back in the good old days, we had no smart phones to distract us, no games to become addicted to, no Internet that is the cause of family dysfunction… I don’t know about you but I hear this all the time. People resist media change because change is not favoured by all humans and because the majority like to grip to what he or she is used to. Socrates himself resisted the advent of writing. We had people resisting the introduction of books, radio, tv… resistance is what we seem to do best when something ‘innovative’ appears. Social media is just another case in history. We will soon stop criticising it when something new comes along… robotics? Advanced AI systems?
  4. And then Alex mentioned this ongoing tension between society and technology – as this medium, the social media is disrupting the power structures that are at work within our society. We have been used to having this power in its hierarchical form… in the style of a Gramscian hegemony. We have been brought up in a pre-social media system which doesn’t question the powers that be… what we are seeing now, is the continuous criticism that comes from the empowerment that such a medium gives people. And yet again we have a double edged sword, as social media becomes the people’s microphone, a voice amplifier and a multiplier that can contribute to news going viral.

Is all this good? Is this bad? Is this controlling our lives? Probably… but then again as humans we really never have total control of our lives or our actions. We live in a society, we are a product of the society we live in. We are controlled all the time by the society we inhabit, by the cultures that form – whether these are physical, digital and virtual. Social media is just a tool – which we can choose to either exploit for the betterment of humanity, or like everything else exploit it to propagate hate, envy, criminal activity and any other action that goes against humanity.

Thanks for a great talk Bryan and Alex! Was quite thought provoking…

Child’s play

Browsing through my Facebook feed, I noticed that a colleague posted this article which caught my eye – The Joyful Illiterate Kindergarteners of Finland. What prompted me to actually read the article more than the title, was the fact that I have a 6-year old son. Since children start school late in Finland, I got this mental image of my son, school and the word joyful… and I knew that in Malta, and for my son, joyful is not how he would describe his scholarly experience.

Let me first start by reflecting a bit on the article. Even though the author compares Finland to the US, I find that in Malta we can compare ourselves with the type of instruction he describes as being characteristic of US schools. Just yesterday I was discussing with another parent about the extent of ‘literacy’ that our children are being subjected to. In Finland, according to the author, the concept of literacy, whether this is numerical or language-related, is integrated into daily playful activities. Even dragging sticks in the mud, and pretending that the children are building dams, can lead to various literacy skills if the teacher intervenes at the right moment. Children at that level are not only exposed to physical activities, but they carry out serious play that can affect (in a positive way of course) the children’s cognitive, emotional and social development. Some children cannot communicate with others, not because they are not able to but simply because they haven’t been given the necessary space for them to develop this.

Now let’s flip back to Malta, and to our children’s current instruction. My son is a 6 year old attending a primary school. Never mind the hours that the article refers to where the children have to sit and write (so that they can improve their literacy skills!!!). It seems that in Malta we are driven by this ever increasing need of getting children flowing down the academic avenue right from when they are born. I don’t know whether this is our ingrained culture or whether we truly believe that we are indeed helping achieve higher levels of education by starting the infamous writing and reading early on in life. But just one look at our number of graduates, or maybe at our levels of early school leavers, or those who opt out of certification-led examinations at the age of 16 or 18, is for me enough to get me thinking whether the way we are approaching early and primary education is the right way. I have heard teachers (at all levels of education) complain that there is nothing they can do if the syllabi they are given are rigid and require the traditional, teacher-driven approach (to manage to “teach” all the syllabus on time), leaving the children in a state of passivity as they read and write (I ask – where’s the play?) …. so whilst the Finnish counterparts of my son’s age category are out there playing, building dams and going on outings, singing and being joyful, our children are doing written homework (after school) only to go back to school, to write more and then sit and do more written and reading exercises.

Now I have to admit it has been a long time since I’ve actually sat inside a primary classroom and observed what goes on. What I know is what I gather from colleagues, and also from what my son tells me. However I do find myself rather baffled. Are our policy makers, and decision takers – or maybe those people who draw up syllabi, aware that when they speak about increasing literacy standards, there are other ways of improving literacy? Are these people aware that people do learn from play and fun and that these are  ultimately not just buzz words but that is quite real? How can we expect to change cultures at a higher education level, when the moment our children start going to school we start telling them that play is not and cannot equate to learning?

I heard a story recently by a colleague – where a school administrator was talking about decreasing (the already severely dwindled) school outings, as these were evidently not useful to increase the benchmark test assessment (similar to PISA) results in a subject (he was referring to 9-10 year olds). According to this person, traditional teaching using workbooks is what would raise literacy levels and not outings. My 2 cents worth is that whilst in academia and research we speak at a certain frequency, those people out there who are in contact with or who are responsible for whoever is in contact with our children, are really not tuned in on the same frequency. We’re talking two completely different languages, and we’re both convinced that each is saying (and doing) the right thing.

What is right? What do parents want? What do policy makers want? What do teachers and school administrators want?

I sincerely don’t know at this point. What I do know is what my child wants … he wants to play. Last time he looked at me and very solemnly he told me : Ma, are you a teacher? I said yes… His reply was … so I deserve more of a rest than you because guess what? it is us children who spend all day working hard at school. I didn’t reply.

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Help! My parents are millennials (A title borrowed from the Time magazine cover story!)

So I just came across this cover story as I was morning browsing through my Facebook newsfeed… and it sort of got me thinking. How different are the new millennials to people of my generation or that of my parents? How differently will they raise their kids?

The cover story describes the lives of two parents, one of whom is the stay at home one (he happens to be the dad) whilst the other works (that’s the mum), and their two children. The parents had earlier on (since the pregnancy) decided to document day by day, their children’s lives as vegans using social media (Instagram and blogs). Now some might object – saying ‘oh come on – they’re only kids, they don’t seem to have a say about being in the public eye’, but then I dare anyone who’s holier than thou, to prove that they have never ever shared anything about themselves on social media.

This is not about the sharing per se. It’s about the how and the why of sharing. Sharing is about passing on a message but what some people fail to understand, is that it is ok to share snippets of lives if this can be of benefit to someone else. In this case these parents seem to be passing the message about sustainable living through continuously documenting the growth of their children.

In these past couple of years, we have seen a huge increase in Facebook use amongst the Maltese population. According to the site We are Social “Malta puts in an impressive showing at 58% (social media) penetration, with Scandinavian countries rounding out the rest of the top 5”. Social media places Facebook as the most popular platform chosen in Western European states. What we have also seen is the massive growth of people putting on all sorts of useless banter (for want of a better word), that can incite or provoke all sorts of reactions. We have also seen people committing gaffes responsible for either losing jobs, or getting to be in the eye of the proverbial storm. The reason has nothing to do with digital natives, millennials, boomers or whatever definition we might give. This all has to do with the good old-fashioned common sense and with a level of education that goes beyond the mere acquisition of grades and degrees and more into the ability to think about the consequences of one’s actions and words in a critical manner. I can also see that what our young people are getting from the messages of some of the elders who are also present on Facebook (not generalising here – but trying to give an overall image of the feelings I get when browsing the web) is that 1. every little thing that you do (whether or not it might make sense to have it) has to be documented on FB, and 2. Gather your pack of wolves (try having as many likes as you can to your posts) so that you can collectively attack anyone who either takes your fancy or else does not agree with what you say.

My 2cents thoughts about this is that social media can be made to work differently – it can be used (as it can sometimes be seen) to pass on messages to help improve people’s quality of life. We have to understand that it is not the social media that are causing the problems. It is the people who are using the social media, that are causing all kinds of mess and confusion. How we use social media is pretty much determined by our good sense, but also by our level of humanity and education. If schools had worked more with millennials to help them understand this, then maybe we might have a more civilised democratic and useful presence on social media. However there is still hope. Will schools rise up to the challenge and help young people understand digital citizenship or will we still persist in teaching ECDL skills and thinking that we are doing our part?

My #TwistedPair challenge: it’s all about Spiderman & Paolo Freire

No intro needed!

No intro needed! Source: http://tinyurl.com/on8jxal

I have recently been invited by Prof. Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth) to take up the twisted pair challenge, and as I was thinking about it, my 6-year old son walked in wearing his spiderman costume (despite the fact that carnival is far away) 🙂 My son loves super heroes… he is always changing his future plans, from wanting to become Spiderman to Batman to the Flash – and he has the costumes to morph into any one of them as befits the occasion. Seeing him always makes me wonder about his future and wondering about his future makes me think about teachers, not only those who I teach, guide and follow, but also about the future generations.

“Not everyone is meant to make a difference. But for me, the choice to lead an ordinary life is no longer an option.” – do you know who said this? Spiderman aka Peter Parker of course – way back in 2002.

I think this quote very much applies to teachers. Not everybody is born to make a difference in the world – but teachers have no choice – their profession demands it. Does this sound rhetorical? Cheesy? The matter of fact is that teachers count. One aspect of my job is that I get to meet and listen to the voices of those who will become teachers in the near future. And sometimes these voices don’t sound so convinced that they can really make a difference in the lives of the people they will encounter and teach on the way. And I feel that most of this arises from the fear of making changes or of embracing those restless, dissonant souls who are searching for much more than becoming merely passive recipients.

Paolo Freire

Paolo Freire
Source: http://tinyurl.com/pspjqc5

And here comes in Paolo Freire, whose own restless soul wanted to bring education to the poor, by empowering them with critical thought through literacy. These words – critical thought, literacy, empowerment – they seem to slide off certain tongues. Sometimes colleagues, researchers, administrators, policy makers seem to use them as buzz words – could it be that maybe they use them to show that they know such words exist? But to implement them in practice – ah now that is the real challenge – is left up to the teacher as she inhabits her classroom space. And invariably I have seen those same teachers who write wonderful words about these words, fail to rise up to the challenge – most often as they are driven by syllabus restrictions, and administrators or heads breathing hotly down their necks but also because it’s easy to reproduce the kind of teaching that they were taught by. It is this that they know and are familiar with – I’ve been there myself – this approach can give you assurances that you can retain control – control of the class, control over what goes on in the minds of the learners, control that then reaches its apex when the students sit for their exam, and obtain a passmark, through all the effort that you (not them) have put in. One quote by Freire which really hits the mark here, and which I usually share with my own students as future teachers is this (from the Pedagogy of the Oppressed) :

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other…”

Knowledge is not achieved by transfer no matter which tools are used for that transfer. We need to change our actions to match our words and truly work towards becoming more critical – starting with ourselves and our perspectives.

So there we go, all of us who are teachers but who are first and foremost, educators who are passionate about diffusing positive energies for creating inquiring, inquisitive minds, that can deal with innovation and invention we need to follow in the steps of our super heroes to be able to bring about a change in the world we live in, for today but also for tomorrow. And for the sake of all the 6-year olds out there who still believe in super heroes, let’s all act like one – and as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker  – “Remember, with great power comes great responsibility!”.