Monday, August 26, 2013

Edscape is Coming. Join Us and Innovate Now

The annual Edscape Conference will once again be held at New Milford High School in New Milford, NJ on Saturday October 19, 2013.  Hundreds of educators from over ten different states and Canada descended upon my school last year to learn together and network in an effort to move their respective school cultures down an innovative path.  Edscape evolved out of the need to provide educators with relevant, meaningful professional development focusing on digital learning and innovation that was in dire need for many.  This was the case for teachers in my District as well as those throughout the Tri-State area. 

Here is a description of the conference:

As the educational landscape changes schools must transform accordingly in order to prepare all learners with the skills, tools, and knowledge to be successful in the 21st Century. This requires a shift in instructional techniques that focus on critical thinking, inquiry, problem-solving, authentic contexts, and technology. Edscape is a conference intended to bring together passionate educators who firmly believe that innovation is essential to increasing student engagement and achievement. Innovation begins with a desire to change. Edscape will provide attendees with the inspiration, strategies, and the confidence to actively pursue a transformation in teaching and learning practices.  The theme of this year’s conference is “Innovation Now”. We will explore how learning environments can be established to promote critical thought, inquiry, problem solving, and creativity. Attendees will leave with a greater sense of how to authentically engage all learners through meaningful and relevant instruction.  The Edscape Conference will feature presentations and workshops by innovative educators who believe that change is essential to meet the diverse needs of all learners in the 21st Century. They will share best practices, success stories, applicable strategies, and pedagogical techniques that address the following:

  • Meaningful, cost-effective professional growth opportunities to improve teaching and learning.
  • Effective technology integration as a means to promote student creativity, apply knowledge, and increase engagement in the classroom.
  • Design of authentic learning experiences to enhance critical thought, inquiry, problem-solving, and relevancy in the classroom.
  • Essential leadership practices to articulate a vision for school improvement and begin the implementation process.

Other conference highlights include the following:

  • 60 concurrent sessions
  • Keynote by George Couros, an internationally-renowned educator and leader
  • Featured presentations by Steven Anderson (@Web20classroom) and Shelly Terrell (@shellterrell)
  • Numerous presentations by educators who routinely speak and present at national conferences including Adam Bellow
  • Breakfast and lunch
  • Fantastic networking opportunities
  • An innovation lab to see firsthand some of the latest educational technology in action
  • Giveaways


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Mobile Schools: The Next Generation in Communication and Engagement

As an early adopter of transformative technologies, I have been watching the mobile app space carefully to see how it can benefit all facets of education.  By being a thought leader in the use of digital technology in schools, I was approached by a bold start-up in Boston called Beeonics, which wanted to talk to me about their breakthrough technology.  I had them come down and meet with several student leaders and me this past spring where I shared my vision of having a mobile app for New Milford HS, which could also be shared with other schools.  This work, has rapidly resulted in, I am very excited to say, a native mobile app for the NMHS community that cost my district absolutely nothing thanks to the work of my students and staff. 

My vision is for every high school around the country to have its own native mobile app.  For a high school, having its own native mobile application is a tremendously valuable asset as a tool to communicate more rapidly and efficiently within its community and as a means to help administrators, teachers, coaches, students, and parents to organize more productively all school activities.  As many of you know, here at New Milford High School we have been at the forefront of adopting social media and the latest technologies to improve the way we run our educational and extra-curricular programs. Understanding how mobile devices can be used to benefit all the constituents of our community is a staple of our long-standing commitment to bring technology to the use of our community.  

Using Beeonics technology, we have been able to quickly create a state-of-the-art native mobile application with a rich set of features.  Our application can be managed very easily by our staff through a website with a user-friendly graphical interface. We envision every school benefiting from having their own native mobile application.  Therefore, we want every school to benefit from our work.  Thanks to Beeonics technology, any school can take our mobile application as a template and almost instantly create their own native mobile application, customized to their school.  We will continue to add to our application while making these additions and improvements available to any school, public or private, so please check back often.

Where we stand today is that the New Milford High School native mobile application is now in use by the students, faculty, staff, and parents at New Milford High School on iOS (iPhone and iPad) and Android devices (smart phones and tablets).  All the constituents of the NMHS community are both intrigued and excited by its capabilities. The new school-year version of the application will be available during the first week of September.

I am sure at least some of you, maybe even many of you, are dubious that creating the app itself was easy, let alone easy-to-manage.  However, I assure you any school can do it.  Remember when doing a web site was hard 20 years ago?  Today, a non-engineer can go to SquareSpace, GoDaddy, Wordpress, and many others and make a good web site in a few days, sometimes even hours. This is the Beeonics vision, but for mobile apps (which is a much harder problem with different operating systems, different versions within operating systems, and devices of markedly different size and dimension).  Let me tell you what we did.

The mobile application was developed directly from the input of a group of students, teachers, and administrators. The process was quick and efficient. Modifications and improvements were rapidly implemented.  The mobile application comes with a user-friendly website, which staff and administrators can use to easily share content and notifications with their students in real time. A group of students, teachers, and administrators tried the mobile application during the last four weeks of the previous school year. We collected further feedback and ideas for additional functionality, which were used over the summer to fine tune the application and associated website in the new school-year version.  We made the changes and, voilĂ !, we have a richly-featured mobile app.

I wanted a mobile app for the community of stakeholders at NMHS for many reasons. First, for the students, the application helps them organize their schedule, activities, and homework, and provides them with real-time updates on classes, activities, and athletics.  Specifically, for students, the app enables them to:

  • Access their personalized class/activity schedule and homework planner, with which they can organize all their assignments
  • Access exclusive content/information on their classes, activities, sports, and clubs
  • Stay in close touch with their teachers and coaches
  • Ask questions and receive answers from their teachers and coaches at any time (within reason!)
  • Receive notifications and announcements from the school and from their teachers regarding delayed openings, emergencies, schedule changes, room changes, practices, meetings, events, and other information
  • Stay always up-to-date on all school events and activities that interest them
  • Enroll and follow clubs and activities, as well as check the latest scores and events
  • Use their phone as their lunch card in the school cafeteria
  • Get lunch menus and nutrition information about school food
  • Use their phone as a secure electronic ID to access the school
  • Provide feedback on relevant topics and participate in polls
  • Access their grades
  • Access general school information and contacts

The students are excited because they can have all this information and all these capabilities always available and immediately accessible on their phones, rain or shine, in or out of school.

With respect to teachers and coaches, they are now able to:

  • Easily assign and manage homework, without creating extra work for themselves
  • Easily distribute and manage content/information relevant to each class, practice, or meeting
  • Notify in real time the students in their class or on their team of changes in rooms, practices, meetings, games, venues, and any other information
  • Stay in-touch with their students, team members, other coaches and teachers, and parents
  • Manage in one stop all the social media channels that they use to communicate with their students, team members, and parents

This functionality helps us run the internal functions of the school more effectively, more efficiently, more easily, and with a fun factor we have not had before. The app also allows the constituency outside of the school, the parents, guardians, and other stakeholders to: 

  • Follow and participate in parent/guardian organizations
  • Receive real-time notifications and announcements from the school, teachers, and coaches
  • Stay always up-to-date on all school events and activities that interest them; check the latest scores and event updates
  • Access school information on all the social media channels
  • Access general school information, and contact information of administrators and teachers

The parents are excited because they can have the peace of mind that they are always up-to-date and informed of the activities of their children and notified of any time-sensitive information. Last, but by no means least, I would be remiss if I did not address how this benefits me and the administration of NMHS.

We use the mobile application to:

  • Notify the entire school population in real time of school closings, delayed openings, schedule changes, events, and hopefully never, emergency situations
  • Distribute information and notifications to all the social media channels, including the New Milford High School Facebook and Twitter page
  • Most importantly, it does so without having to recreate work or duplicate materials from one area to another.  I did not want to do anything to make my job or the job of my terrific staff any harder.

What I love the most about our native mobile application, in addition to the obvious positive impact that it has throughout our community, is that I can reach all my constituents instantly and reliably, on the one device which is the most personal and which is (unless they leave it at home like I have a few times before!) always with them.

I am really excited about the mobile app and even more excited that all of you can take advantage of the work done by my students, staff, teachers, coaches, and parents to bring the same capabilities we have today to your school quickly. To that end, I have asked Beeonics to offer our app to other schools for only $1.49 per user per academic year as a favor to me and because we helped Beeonics debug their software (the Beeonics app is normally $2.99 per user per academic year).  The company has graciously agreed.  This offer stands through the end of 2013.  Please go to to register and use the keyword “Eric”.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Android Apps Anyone?

Ever since becoming connected in March 2009 I have relied on two primary mobile devices.  The first was a trio of Blackberry smart phones, which many of my connected friends have busted my chops about even up to recently.  I relied on this type of smart phone for years as it was provided to me at work.  Even though the number of apps was, and still is, very limited, the ability to connect to the Internet was good enough for me.  I was able to deal with the ridicule from my tweeps, but it wasn't until my wife got sick of the fact that I still had a common flip phone that I used for personal calls that a major shift occurred. She eventually gave me her iPhone when it was time for her to upgrade and this has been my primary mobile device for the past year.

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In 2010 I purchased my first iPad and this has been my primary tablet ever since.  Over the years I have become quite proficient and knowledgeable about iOS apps that I rely on to increase productivity and to grow professionally through my Personal Learning Network (PLN).  I have become so reliant on Apple devices that I never saw or anticipated the need to learn anything about Android apps since I could never see myself making the switch.  

Well things recently changed as I got my hands on what I think might be the hottest and most exciting Android tablets to hit the market - the Sony Xperia Z.  I can't wait to fully vet this device.  The only problem is that this is the first Android device that I have had in my possession for any extended time. I did have an original Galaxy tablet a few years back, but I quickly became disinterested as it's capabilities paled in comparison to the iPad's.  It was then passed off to my son who used to strictly to play Pumpkins vs. Monsters

With the Xperia Z I want the full Andoid experience. This is where you come in.  I have no clue where to even begin with Android apps.  There are many iOS apps also on Android that I love and have begun to download (i.e. Zite, Flipboard, Dropbox, Evernote, etc.).  What I am looking for are some of the best native Android apps that are not available on iOS.  Please consider recommending the apps that you find to be the most useful and why in the comments below. Thanks everyone!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Testing For What?

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

NJ Spotlight is a fantastic resource for me.  They are unbiased in their approach to educate citizens on numerous topics, with education being one of them.  I recently came across an opinion piece titled Putting New Jersey's High School Diplomas to the Test.  The article focused on NJ's relentless push to increase standardized testing and institute end of course exams that students would have to pass in order to graduate.  It really got me thinking about the direction we are headed in and the negative consequences that it will ultimately have on our learners.

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It is safe to say that the situation in NJ is no different than many states across the country.  For many misguided and misinformed reasons, politicians think that the education system in the United States is not up to par.  As a result, marching orders have been sent down to each state’s DOE to hold teachers and schools more accountable.  New laws have been passed and mandates implemented with little or no input from educators.  To make matters worse, schools and educators are being asked to quickly adhere to these mandates with inadequate training, preparation, and field testing.  I am a firm believer in accountability measures that are backed by research, but less so in those that line the pockets of special interest groups.

So when and how did all of this school failure rhetoric begin?  The NJ Spotlight piece points this out with a little history lesson in NCLB:

"NCLB was a dismal failure in raising academic performance or narrowing gaps in opportunity and outcomes. But its over-reliance on mandated testing did succeed in creating a narrative of school failure that undermined support for public education and led to a decade of bad policy in the name of reform."

The ultimate goal should be to develop a love for learning amongst our students and prepare them to be successful in any college and/or career they choose.  Achievement is great and what we should strive for, but actual learning and growth is much more important.  The centerpiece of the majority of education reform efforts is standardized testing.  Students will NEVER come to school excited to take one of these tests.  They yearn for true authentic, relevant, meaningful learning experiences that inspire inquiry and the desire to learn more.  This is the key to college and career readiness in my mind.

Are we really testing students to determine if they are college and career ready? Like many others I am a bit skeptical of this.  Here is an excerpt from the NJ Spotlight piece:

"In fact there is little evidence that an exit testing policy leads to better prepared graduates, improved college participation or completion rates, or benefits to a state’s economy. Less than half the states have high stakes graduation exams, and several that did recently ended them. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “challenging standards-based exams reduce graduation and increase incarceration rates.” The study found no corresponding positive effects on employment or earnings."

If that wasn't eye-opening enough here is another piece from the article that I found as a compelling argument against graduation tests, or any standardized exam for that matter, that will be linked to a student graduating:

"Current graduation tests don’t reliably measure what they pretend to measure (“intelligence,” “academic ability,” “college readiness”), and they don’t measure at all qualities all high school graduates should have (responsibility, resilience, critical thinking ability, empathy). The new tests are not likely to be much better. They must be given over computer networks many schools don’t have and will still mainly consist of multiple choice questions that assess a narrow range of skills and curricula." 

Please take a look at the entire NJ Spotlight article for more insightful information about the road ahead. So what are we really testing students for?  I have my opinions please share yours.  Maybe this dialogue will resonate with policy and decision makers so that they can right the ship before it crashes.