Jumping into the school reform debate

October 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve been reading a lot of the responses over the past week to the Rhee et. al manifesto published in the Washington Post on Sunday. This followed a week of comments about “Waiting for Superman” and the discussion about the one-sided Oprah show on education.

It seems like Rhee is getting a lot of press, but in this day of open content, the backlash is receiving little attention in the press. I’d like to see Oprah do a show with only people who oppose the reforms that Rhee and her colleagues propose, and then a show where there is an actual debate with actual facts between the two sides.

The discussion has been started, but we need those in the media who are responsible for starting it to be responsible in continuing it.

Congratulations to the Post’s Answer Sheet for publishing the dissenting views and keeping the points in the paper balanced.

I was discussing this whole thing at length the other day with one of my colleagues, and we both agreed that the problem wasn’t that bad teachers were remaining in the classroom, it was that good teachers were leaving.  In droves.

Now, I’m by no means saying that all good teachers leave the classroom to do something else, but in a lot of cases, the people who move up in the education world are the ones who need to be in the classroom the most. The people who use the best practices and technology and are the teachers that kids want to learn from are often times the ones who move into a role as a principal, curriculum, or technology specialist.

And yes, we do need quality people to do those jobs, and many times those higher level positions can have a positive impact on many more students than they would have in an individual classroom, but imagine the impact they could make if they remained a teacher and were mentors to other teachers on their campus, or were given the time to co-teach with newer teachers, or those who were struggling? And rather than paying them in time off, or a minimal stipend, what about if we paid them the salary they would have gotten if they’d become a principal, or a curriculum specialist? That’s the kind of merit pay I can get behind. One that’s not based on test scores, but rather on the recognition that a teacher has his or her greatest impact in the classroom, not only with their own students, but by showing what they do and how they do it to other teachers.

But of course, the problem with this is that then, there would be accusations that principals and administrators played favorites. Because it would be subjective, there would always be the jealousy factor. That is what the current merit pay and evaluation system tries to avoid. By giving people a set of numbers that they can compare to other numbers, the system of determining a teacher’s “worth” is easy.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s not easy. It’s not a business where you can easily see the numbers rise and fall. This isn’t sales.

There are too many factors involved with teaching and learning to simplify everything down to a few tests and the numbers associated with them. At the end of the day, you have to look at each individual student and the progress that they’ve made. Whether they passed the test or not doesn’t mean anything if they haven’t learned, and this is what the people who signed that manifest seem to have forgotten, or never known in the first place.

The impact a teacher makes can’t be measured by the test. It’s can’t be put into numbers. Teaching is about human interaction. It is about knowing what you need to do to get your students motivated. It’s about watching and learning yourself, then changing what you do to get your students to understand.

Anyone who tries to tell you that they know the good and bad teachers by just looking at statistics doesn’t know a thing about what it means to be an educator.

So how do we fix it? There is no simple answer, but one thing is certain – it cannot, and will not ever start with politicians and people who have never spent a moment in the classroom except for their own time in the education system. It needs to come from the bottom, a grassroots campaign to remove restrictions, to show student growth in a different way. It’s going to take teachers willing to buck the system and show that students are making progress in spite of being tested to death, showing that problem solving, not fact memorization is the key to being a lifelong learner.

So…who’s going to step up and start the revolution?


Live@Edu – are you listening, Microsoft?

October 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

So I finally stumbled across a help discussion about sky drives today and was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one who was having issues.  The sharing issue was described, in detail, exactly like I described it in my previous post. Funny thing is, the original post was from the end of May.  That means Microsoft has know about this issue for at least 4 months and their response has been, for the most part, that’s how it was designed.

Here’s the situation, and an explanation of why we weren’t seeing documents that had been shared.

In order for documents to show up under “shared with me,” the person sharing the document and the share-ee (for lack of a better word) must be “friends.” That means sending a friend request to the person who you want to share files with and them requesting. Alternative: making all of those people part of a group, and then they can see the shared files on the group’s page.

This is still (as has been pointed out several times in this help thread) counter-intuitive, and forcing people to take an extra step that doesn’t happen in Google Docs.

Microsoft’s answer is that it was designed that way in part to prevent spammers from sharing documents with someone via an email address and having it show up automatically. Here is a portion of the explanation from Arcadiy K:

SkyDrive is automatically available to all 300+ million Windows Live users. This has notable advantages: the people you share files with are much more likely to have an account, so you don’t have to explain to them how to sign up first before they can interact with your files. In addition, SkyDrive has much better support for sharing documents broadly, and it supports all file types.

The downside of living in a world with many more users, though, is that it opens you up to people who accidentally share an item with the wrong email address or, worse yet, spammers. Imagine if anyone could share a document with your email address and make it show up under “shared with me” without you having any control over it: the moment spammers learned about it, you’d be stuck with most of your All Documents page full of “GET YOUR CHEAP MEDS HERE.docx” and “Lose weight with this simple trick.pptx” from random people.

In order to prevent that unfortunate scenario, we have decided that becoming friends on Windows Live is the “gate” to control what shows up in your SkyDrive. We do know, though, that you want easy and convenient access to documents you’ve seen before–this is why we’ve included the Recent Documents list right on the office.live.com landing page, which includes the last six documents you’ve opened (whether they’re yours or anyone else’s). We also send email notifications when you share an item with a person, and provide a convenient “Get a link” page that lets you share where your files are yourself.

Finally, we’ve built easy to use groups functionality, so if there are a bunch of business colleagues you frequently share with, you can ask them to join a group, and then share your files directly with that group. In that case, accessing the group’s documents page will show all of these items.

We’re working hard to make the SkyDrive experience better for all of you, and rest assured that we’re listening and paying close attention to your feedback.

So I guess my questions for Microsoft are: 1) why doesn’t Google have this issue of spam sharing of documents? What are they doing that Microsoft can’t or won’t do? 2) If a person if part of a group, why not make those group documents also show up in the person’s sky drive instead of making them go to yet another place to view additional documents?

Another reply from Arcadiy K later in the thread says this in reply to someone complaining that the term “friend” seems a little odd for people using this as a business tool:

Please keep in mind that Windows Live in general and SkyDrive specifically is a service designed for individuals rather than business users. We’re glad that many of you have found it useful for your small businesses, and we do think it can be useful in that setting, but the vast majority of our user base consists of people sharing and collaborating on documents and photos with their friends and family. In that context, colleagues would make very little sense.

I’ll add this – it’s also odd for teachers using it with students.  We are in an era where administrators and school districts are specifically telling teachers not to “friend” students on Facebook, yet Microsoft is going to make you do just that because this is the exact same product they use for Live@Edu…it’s not just an individual product, and Microsoft needs to recognize that.

I especially like Lori Weir’s reply (emphasis mine):

Google has streamlined the sharing process with GoogleDocs and the spam has not been an issue. From the buzz I hear you are loosing customers in the edu market, especially K-12 where GoogleDocs has a fast-growing user base. The kids in those classrooms are tomorrow’s business users. I believe you have a huge opportunity to attract the higher ed market if you rethink and reposition. For the most part colleges and universities have adopted the MS Office desktop client and are preparing students for the world of work. OL Skydrive is the obvious segue to cloud computing. Textbook publishers are already including instructions on OL Skydrive in the appendices. This clearly speaks to a professional market in which the “friending” language is not appropriate.Today’s college students are tomorrow’s business users.

Regarding the extra step (“friending”) it is confusing–I am an IT instructor and it took me over an hour to figure out what was wrong. I had to create a dummy account test, etc. then finally found my way to this thread. I wasn’t expecting the extra step because this was not the case with OfficeLive or GoogleDocs. As is, the process is not obvious or intuitive and I know the majority of my students won’t find the solution without further instruction; new and reluctant users would be easily frustrated by the added layers (steps, instructions).  My options are to save the emails from 40+ students so I can access their shared folder or, send “friend” requests to every student as they create their accounts and wait for them to friend me. Then, if I want them to collaborate with eachother they have to do the same. That’s not right; it is too many steps. My mission is to teach students to collaborate and I want a product that makes that possible in as few steps as possible.

We’ll see if Microsoft decides to listen, and be flexible with making changes.  With the thread being active for 4 months, I doubt it, but we’ll see.

I never used the previous version of Office Live Workspaces, but it seems like it was much easier to use.  Why Microsoft feels like it needs to complicate things  when they have a product that works well (like completely changing the UI with Office 2007) is beyond me. They need to test things in-house without giving any kind of training beforehand to see if their own users can muddle through their changes without getting frustrated.

Live@Edu – not ready for primetime

October 4, 2010 § 4 Comments

Quite honestly, I wish I didn’t have to write this post.

I really wanted Live@Edu – heck, the whole Office Live thing whether you’re part of Live@Edu or not – to work.  And it didn’t.  It just flat out doesn’t work the way I think it should.  It is completely counter-intuitive, and downright confusing.

I’m not one of those fly-by-night complainers who tries something for 5 minutes and then throws up his hands in disgust.  I almost always figure that I’m missing something obvious and have other people try to help me figure things out. I will give a product way more than a fair shake, and probably a lot more time than it deserves before I decide that it doesn’t need any more of my time.

The final straw for me was sharing items that were in a folder.

I went about sharing the normal way, you know, putting in the email addresses of the people I wanted to share with, and figured that whatever I’d shared would show up under “shared with me” when those users logged in and looked at their sky drive.

Not so.

Not even close.

Evidently, after you share an item, you have to send the person a message letting them know that you’ve shared it.  That message will include a link to the shared resource,  which they can click on to get to it, but even after clicking it, the item only shows up in “recent documents” and not under “Shared with me.” And to top it all off, you have the ability to “skip this step” when you’re sharing, which is exactly what I did at first because I (wrongly) assumed that the “Shared with me” area would actually show shared items.

So what gives, Microsoft? Why even have “Shared with me” if nothing that’s shared with me is going to show up there?

I can only imagine what would happen if we tried to turn out this product to teachers.  Teachers are a pretty resilient bunch, and they’ll give something a lot of chances, too. But if it’s not intuitive, and if they have to keep asking the same questions over and over again, they’re going to get tired of it and stop using the technology.

Technology needs to be easy for teachers to use, and Live@Edu is most certainly not.

It’s a shame because it could be so much better. It just looks like Microsoft was trying to catch up to Google, and they only did a half-hearted job of it.

So, to sum things up…here are the reasons I’m going to not recommend Live@Edu for our district:

  1. we have to block the email piece instead of being able to turn it off completely
  2. navigation within Live is inconsistent (hover to get some menus, click to get others) and confusing (Hotmail showing at the top when we have Outlook, New PowerPoint Presentation not takes you to a list of recent documents).
  3. Getting to shared documents is close to impossible, most certainly not intuitive.

And here’s the rub…we weren’t really even evaluating it for any of those features, but I know how things work.  If you start to use a product for one thing, but it has additional features, those features are going to get used, and you’re going to get support calls about it.  If you support one part of it, you have to support all of it.

I still love the mesh piece of it. You get more free storage space than anywhere else I’ve seen online, AND the ability to sync between multiple devices is absolutely killer.  It is the best I’ve seen, and if we were evaluating that alone, I would recommend Microsoft over Google, especially with the recent announcement that Google made about purchasing additional storage space for their Google Apps customers.

Seriously, Google, for as much stuff as you give away, you’d think you could spare a little more space in the cloud.  But even if you can’t, charging $70 per user per YEAR for 20 additional gigs seems a little silly, especially when Microsoft is giving away 25 gigs to anyone who comes calling.

So, unless someone in my department has something amazing to tell me about Live@Edu at the end of the week, I’m pretty much done with it.  I’m not about to put my time and effort into something that is going to confuse and overwhelm our teachers.

We need something easy. We need something intuitive. Come on, Microsoft…free doesn’t have to mean poor quality.

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