No Sherpas Req’d (But Available): Google in Education Maine Summit 2013

Thanks to an arrangement between ACTEM and Mt. Blue RSD, several of my district colleagues and I were able to attend Google in Education Maine Summit 2013, held on the beautiful, essentially brand-new Hampden Academy campus.

The building was gorgeous.  The summit was rad.

A play-by-play rundown would be a massive time suck for you, fearless reader, a largely gratuitous self-indulgence for my writer’s ego, and still fail to capture the spirit of one of the better-run, effort-equal-to-reward professional development experiences I’ve had.  (Jeff and I have well documented our frustration with ill-considered and just plain sad PD, so this is saying something.)

Instead, I feel it wise to drop handfuls of helpful hints and potentially game changing “Massive Take Aways” (MTAs) I gathered in my time at #gafesummit.  The complete list can be gathered by following @WickedDecent on Twitter.  (I’ve also created a Storify of those tweets here.)

Monica Martinez delivered Day One’s keynote, offering up some compelling data points, cultural trends and it got me thinking.

MTA: How might we utilize social media for students to generate meaningful content?

Many of us have students blogging, a bunch of us have students Tweeting, a handful of us have students YouTube-ing and podcasting.  How much of that content proves meaningful beyond our immediate content area curricular needs?

When we talk about authentic assessment and the potential for social media to enable students to operate in the real world with their learning, should their products not also be authentic and real?  I love my little Frankenstein Pinboard assessment I had my students create last year — but those pins, as much as they show an understanding of character and theme and point of view, they have no real, meaningful audience beyond me.  How might I retool that use of Pinboard, Twitter, Blogger into the creation of content that contributes to something bigger than a standard?

Later, a Blogger session with Cathy Wolinksky led me to migrate my classroom blog from WordPress over to Google’s platform.

I’ve gotten fairly adept at updating using the free WordPress.com tools, but I’ve been frustrated by some of its limitations at the same time.  Since all of my students this year will be using Blogger, it only makes sense to work with what they are using.  I’ll better be able to answer questions and model the features.  Plus, Blogger plays nicer with YouTube.

MTA: Having the opportunity to tinker with a knowledgeable party in the room is sometimes all the space someone needs to succeed.  

Other folks were learning the basics and I needed a chance to play with a safety net.  Too often I’ll assume the students will figure out the tools on their own or need tremendous direct instruction.  Provide a little space, have the folks who need the most help right nearby, the others in earshot, and it may just be the best solution for all.

Ken Shelton delivered the Day Two keynote.  On Day One, he provide me  some powerful workflow solutions in Google Docs.  I didn’t realize just how much research (probing, sorting, prioritizing, citing)  could be done without ever leaving the composition screen.  Commenting wasn’t new to me, but his expectations for students and the contextual evidence it provides in a parent conference?  Very new and very cool.

MTA: Why go to six tabs when you can go to one?  

Until the GAfE summit, I hadn’t experienced the seamlessness it can afford.  For many of my students, keeping it simple and all-in-one-place has limitless value.

On Day Two, Ken’s keynote hit on the importance of meaningful design, having students create digital portfolios to showcase understanding & growth, and why all of this “stuff” matters.   In his Google Sites session, he shared a couple dozen other sweet pieces of wisdom (custom color palates,  relationship between site & blog, shaping a digital identity) but I walked away with two major understandings above all others.

MTA: Fewer steps for the end user to find desired information tends to equal more engagement and greater clarity.  

So often I create far too complicated means for my students to access class resources online.  I’m always deliberate in my design, but my nesting patterns tend to mean students have to dig down or ignore  irrelevant content.  They end up having to use search bars to find old posts and wade through a blog, a wiki, and more to find what they need.  I can do better and in doing better, my students will have more time to think and learn.  (And that’s the whole point, right?)

Alice Barr & Kern Kelley, Maine technology integration local-edu-lebrities, delivered sessions on Friday full of more suggestions, tips, ideas, pedagogical considerations, practical applications and . . . phew.  The hits just kept on coming and my brain hit a place of full.  Just having the opportunity to sit in the auditorium and key in, then key out as my gnat-length attention span permitted was welcome.

Alice showed the best IN & OUT folder system for Google Drive I’ve ever seen.  It’s simple. It’s elegant.  It’s tough for me to explain in a blog post (I’ve tried three drafts) and I worry that I’ll miss a key step, thus causing frustrations.  Holler her way.  I’m sure she will explain it with great precision & clarity.

MTA: The best solutions are often the most simple AND it often takes expertise to uncover that simplicity.  

In the classrooms, we have opportunities to simplify the complicated of understanding for our students.  I often read about teacher as facilitator versus teacher as expert.   When it comes to content, I agree that we should be guiding and coaching students to knowledge rather than imparting.  At the same time, we are the experts at learning in the room and that may be where we should be flexing our pedagogical muscles: streamlining the learning process.

There were a few quirky hitches along the way — and presenters didn’t sugar coat these.  Unlike some PD sessions I’ve attended centered around particular platforms, the folks at the GAfE Summit owned the shortcomings raised and empathized with the plight of the end users.  (“Plight” is a strong word.  And I like it.)

Can’t wait for next summer.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go look into this Google Certified Teacher program.  I’ve got a lot of learning to do.

About Dan Ryder

Dan Ryder & Jeff Bailey, co-founders of Wicked Decent Learning, a blog, podcast, Twitter feed and who-knows-what-all-else devoted to teaching and learning in Vacationland and beyond. Teachers, dads, actors, writers, geeks, buds.

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