Starting From Scratch

Open Road © Brian Farrell

I am incredibly privileged to be embarking on a tremendous new challenge this school year. As part of the foundation staff of Branksome Hall Asia in Jeju, Korea, I have been charged with developing a whole school library facility and program. The facilities that have been created at the school are world class and truly remarkable (pictures to follow once all of the furnishings are in!), and my task now is to outfit and create a library and library programming that fits the needs of our learners.

In approaching this task, I’ve begun with a needs analysis to better articulate the end goals that I should be working towards. This processes is easier said than done since our students don’t arrive on campus for another month, but I’m beginning to understand Branksome, its rich heritage, and how it will differ from other international schools. The Branksome library will serve a unique group of learners, as the majority of our students will be:
– Korean girls
– Boarding students
– Using English as an additional language
– Unfamiliar with the International Baccalaureate and its three programs (we are a PYP, MYP, and DP candidate school)
– Connected with Branksome Hall in Toronto through exchanges and regular collaboration

With these traits in mind, I am aiming to create a library and library programming that is accessible (both physically and virtually – we will need to offer in-person services for resident students outside of the traditional school day, and I feel it’s critical that I’m accessible across the school outside of the physical library space), globally-minded, welcoming, and enriching to student growth and understanding.

As the year progresses, the needs of our community will become more clear, but I’m hopeful that the resources and systems that I am developing for our initial start-up will provide a good foundation to build upon. It’s such a great opportunity to have a blank canvas to draw on, particularly when you feel fully supported by your school administration, and I have a million ideas already bouncing around in my head about wonderful things that we can offer as a library.

Having said all of this, one thing that’s critical to developing a library space and programming that’s used and valued is soliciting input and feedback from our entire community. So this post is just one of many attempts to garner input; what would you want from your school library? How can the library best support your classroom practice, and how can it inspire a love of reading? What resources are critical to building understanding and developing the skills that we want to instill in our future graduates? I’m asking all of these questions of myself, but am looking forward to also hearing as many other opinions as possible.

A Year Later

Today marked one year since the Tohoku earthquake. Over the past few weeks, most of us in Japan have been rethinking all that has happened in the days since, and all that remains to be done to try to bring a sense of normalcy back to the people of Tohoku. As much as those of us in the rest of Japan have resorted to our routines, there still remains a great deal of physical need in many communities, and the emotional turmoil will continue to take its toll for many years to come.

So this sunny and calm afternoon, we gathered in our neighbourhood seaside park to observe a moment of silence and reflect upon all that has been lost and the hope for what might become. At 2:46pm, a hush fell across the park as the gathered crowd turned to face the sea and bowed its collective head.

But after only a few fleeting seconds of silence, the Hikawa Maru, a former ocean liner that sits permanently moored beside the park as a tourist attraction, blasted its horn loudly across the harbour. Far from a moment of silence, we had a moment of loud reverence for the power of nature and its ability to change and erase lives in an instant. Although I’ve lived a couple of blocks away from the Hikawa Maru for several years, it was the first time that I had ever heard its horn put to use, and it was an appropriately blaring reminder of the violence and torment that was unleashed on so many one year ago. As the horn sustained its scream, I thought of the images and stories that I have born witness to over the past year, and thought about how quickly life can shift or disappear altogether. Above all, I thought about perspective, and the quiet resolve and incredible human spirit of the Japanese people in the face of such enormous and loud catastrophe.

As the ship’s horn finally silenced, a school choir from Sendai began singing a song called ‘Arigatou’ or thank you. Humbly, and not too loud.

Textbooks?

The arrival of iBooks Author from Apple is set to herald a new level of democratization in the publishing world. Anyone can now create and sell their own textbook using a very intuitive, yet powerful platform, and then sell their finished product directly through Apple’s iBookstore. Down with the big publishing company monopolies! Or at least, that’s how Apple would like you to see it. The actual reality is that once you create something on iBooks Author, you’re now betrothed to Apple forever. There’s some debate around these terms of use and their ultimate intent, but until Apple offers an alternative option (e.g. pay for the software), using iBooks Author means only being able to sell your book in iBookstore.

Despite this very large obstacle around authors retaining control over their works, I’m still positive about the ability to create professional looking publications using iBooks Author, and the fact that you can still distribute these publications for free outside of iBookstore holds promise. But the larger question is, why are we still so beholden to students using textbooks in the first place?

I dare you to learn how to do this by reading a textbook. Photo © Brian Farrell

I’ll admit it, the students in my class have certainly glanced at a textbook on several occasions, and they do have their time and place. Certain curricula, particularly those based upon weighty final exams, can benefit from a well-structured textbook to ensure that all of the material is adequately covered. They are an easy resource to consult in independently reviewing key material. And in learning fundamental skills or looking at rote analysis of issues, textbooks can definitely be of benefit.

But in my opinion, the majority of learning occurring in our classrooms should not be coming as the result of students reading their textbooks. There are too many other dynamic, more engaging, and just generally more authentic ways for students to learn than simply sitting them in front of a textbook. Students need to be able to express their own ideas and opinions, not just regurgitate others that they have read. They need to form connections between seemingly disparate topics, not read linearly from chapter to chapter. And they need to make decisions about what information is valid, relevant, and correct, not to just read the opinion of one author deemed worthy enough to write a textbook. In this sense, iBooks Author is a solution addressing a solution rather than fixing the fundamental problem of using textbooks in the first place.

Now, having students use iBooks Author to create their own textbooks, that’s a completely different (and much more empowering and educationally relevant) story!

Top 10 Educational Technology Developments of 2011

© 2011 Brian Farrell

As the year winds down (winter break started today, yay!), and as my COETAIL grading pile ramps up, I’ve been reflecting on some of the developments in educational technology over the past year, and what this will mean for our learning communities in 2012. By no means an exhaustive list, here are 10 developments (in no particular order – in fact, I think #2 is probably the most important!) that I think will impact our classrooms, libraries, and online learning spaces in the coming year:

1. Kindle eBook Lending for Libraries

Certainly not a complete solution (it isn’t even available outside of the US yet), but definitely a step in the right direction. While Amazon is not exactly a model citizen when it comes to supporting libraries, and while publishers are already getting itchy about people borrowing their books, ebooks are a space that libraries want to be in, and librarians need vendors that will work with them in providing ebook solutions to their patrons.

2. The Online Filter Bubble and a Junk Food Information Diet

Probably the most important idea of the year, and yet probably also something that most people don’t even realize is happening. If you aren’t aware of how the internet is being fed to you, and just how tailored your online experience has become, you need to watch this TED talk by Eli Pariser. This is something that all educators need to make sure that their students are aware of.

3. Skype in the Classroom

Skype was already a great tool for educators, particularly those of us working in international settings. The formalization of their education site now means easier collaboration amongst teachers and students around the world. I can already hear Google grumbling, so I’d watch for similar developments coming from Google Voice.

4. Steve Jobs’ death

I was torn about including this one, as Steve Jobs was not exactly a model corporate citizen. Still, his penchant for innovation and revival of Apple into a company that provides outstanding and highly useable products in educational spaces will mean that he will be greatly missed. I’m not naive enough to think that the loss of Jobs will mean the demise of Apple, but I do think that there’s a limit to how quickly and how many innovations can keep coming from them. As a result, schools like mine that rely heavily on Apple devices need to keep a keen eye on the competition to make sure that we’re providing the best tools to our students.

5. Google to acquire Motorola

Google is huge and just keeps getting bigger. Their purchase of a hardware manufacturer in Motorola means that they can now better compete in the smartphone market, which should be a positive development as far as new innovations and healthy competition is concerned. I’m a big fan of open source solutions though, and despite their promises, it’s hard to say whether Google will continue to keep Android truly open now that they are directly competing in the smartphone hardware marketplace. Still, the possibilities afforded to education by mobile platforms are already fantastic (see #10 below), and I’m excited to see what a Google/Motorola partnership will bring to our schools.

6. Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)

This law makes me nervous, and really is a step far too far. Respecting copyright is one thing (and the right thing), but a total clampdown on any sort of fair use online makes the US is now looking more like China and Iran when it comes to online spaces, and I’m hopeful that the recent backlash continues to slow things down. Even as a producer and seller of online content, I realize that for creativity to continue, people need to feel free to explore and share their creations online. While the online space may be new to legislators, this is just a case of a business model needing to change – if you think this is a new problem, watch this excellent video series.

7. Internet Explorer Auto-updates

This may seem like a small story, but I feel that it is actually quite significant. By making this move, Microsoft is attempting to make their platforms more secure by forcing users to update to the newest version of their software automatically. The Orwellian in me has doubts about others controlling my software remotely, but the realist in me  acknowledges that this will greatly benefit many computer users (hi mom!) who don’t realize that they’re putting themselves at risk by running out of date software. I currently work in an all-Mac school, but I can hear the cheers already from IT support people in schools that run on Windows.

8. WebOS Open Source

The more open source platforms, the better (see #5). While most don’t believe that WebOS will be a major competitor in the marketplace, by making this platform available to the public, HP is allowing new developers to get a foothold in the mobile marketplace. Any super programming geeks in your school? Why not let them loose on WebOS?

9. The other tablets – HP Touchpad, RIM Playbook, and Kindle Fire (with apologies to Samsung)

Yes, there are other tablets out there. The iPad is a fantastic tool, but there are other (cheaper) alternatives that can do a lot of the same things quite well. Well, assuming that they are still around in 2012 – the Touchpad is already on its way out, and I’m assuming that the Playbook is not far behind it. Particularly for schools that find it hard to fully fund a fleet of iPads, the alternatives are worth looking at, and their continued development means more innovation, which is good for everyone, iPad user or not.

10. iPhone 4s & iPad2

The iPhone and iPad are already tremendous additions to the classroom, but I feel as though we’re just scratching the surface of what we could be doing with these devices. The addition of a (in the case of the iPhone 4s, much better) camera to the iPhone and iPad mean even greater flexibility in how these devices can be used in our classrooms. Our field studies micro-blogging project at my school has been ongoing for several years, and is one great example of how smart phones can be integrated seamlessly into our schools.


Thanks for reading this far. I wish you and yours a restful holiday break, and all the best in 2012.