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Separation of Church & State

It was Christmas eve in 1965 and my two sisters and I (yes, that's me in the photo at 10 years of age reacting to my big sister's gift of the wildly popular Give-a-Show Projector) were opening gifts at my grandparent's house in Moorhead, MN. As I look back on that year and try to recall all of it I see it as a simpler time, when each day seemed like an eternity, there were few distractions and, as I came to appreciate much later on, the average cost of a new home was $13,600, gas was $0.31 per gallon, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was a mere 969.

But it wasn't a simple time, was it? The Vietnam war was just beginning to escalate (President Lyndon Johnson announced an increase in the number of United States troops in South Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000), the civil rights movement was gaining momentum and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama with the result of State troopers violently confronting them.

Preceding that 1965 Christmas in my school, Valley View Elementary in Bloomington, MN, was the first time that I had to confront the realization that there were other people who held religious beliefs different from mine.

A boy in my school, Sam S., was Jewish and we talked one day at lunch about that day's Christmas carol singing and he started to cry. Not knowing what to do, I sat there without saying anything and ate my sandwich until he stopped. "What's the matter," I asked as he wiped away a tear and responded, "I don't know any of the words and just feel stupid."

Though I probably did nothing to console him, that one incident forever changed the way I viewed what "separation of church and state" meant as well as the term "religious freedom" and the protection both deserve. 

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How Much Data Do We Consume?

How much data and information do we in the U.S. consume? What kind of data is it? University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers asked these, and many other questions, in a just released research report (PDF) which contains stunning results.

My emphasis from their executive summary: "In 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day. A zettabyte is 10 to the 21st power bytes, a million million gigabytes. These estimates are from an analysis of more than 20 different sources of information, from very old (newspapers and books) to very new (portable computer games, satellite radio, and Internet video). Information at work is not included."

That's a lot of data! What impressed me about their findings was that they took in to account multiple source inputs since, as I've found, many of these research studies focus on the new, internet-centric data consumption as though traditional forms of data delivery (the "old" above) are suddenly irrelevant.

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Children Who Use Technology Are Better Writers

Those of us who are highly active users of blogging, social media, and other forms of technology requiring ability to properly communicate regardless of the medium agree: fully participating with technology and communicating with others makes us better communicators.

Coming across this article, "Children who use technology are 'better writers'" seemed too broad and blanket of a statement for my taste, but it brought forth my knowing that there was an intrinsic truth to it and I was intrigued enough to poke around and discover the UK-based National Literary Trust and the report itself.

The report validated my personal belief, and reinforced observations that I and many of my colleagues have made, about what happens to someone when they're motivated to communicate with the written word, receive nearly immediate feedback on the efficacy of their writing, and strive to communicate well.

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Are You Good at Parental Communication?

Fascinating conversation over this holiday weekend with an individual who is an executive in a sizable company. It surrounded communications and collaboration in his organization during a time of accelerating change – and technologies such as wiki’s, VoIP, Twitter, social networks and more – and then it came around to this blog on Scholastic Administrator and how I’ve been driving hard the notion of the importance of enhanced collaboration in K-12 with a focus on better parental communication.

He blurted out, "What parental communication? Do you mean once a term conferences and an occasional email? What a joke. If I ran my business by letting my managers do whatever they wanted for months and then let me know if the employees under their management are succeeding or failing once per quarter, we’d be out of business! We must be able to make frequent and constant course corrections in order to stay headed down the path of success."

Not prepared for his passionate outburst, I made certain I understood what he wanted and expected. "We have in place all sorts of means to ensure that I, and my other leaders, are fully informed and constantly on top of changes and progress. From GANTT charts in project plans to Powerpoint updates to notifications by email/text message or phone calls, it's a constant stream of communication that ensures I'm able to measure and manage that progress. All I ask is that my son's school help me measure and manage my son's progress and not simply give me a login to a "portal" with grades posted that, in many cases, are too late to affect.

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Why User Interface Matters

How you and I interact with technology all comes down to the user interface. Whether it's the knobs on a car radio to a website interface and even how the icons on a mobile phone are arranged, the usability, approachability and our ability to be productive all comes down to the thought and care that went in to the design of the that user interface.

Every choice you make with your communications in your website, blog, email, presentations, and even printed materials, all comes down to how approachable you make it. If design, layout and user interface didn't matter, I often joke that we'd all be reading our newspapers and magazines on white paper with 12 point Geneva font and no columns, graphics or photos. 

When I went to work for a manufacturer's rep group in 1981 at the "dawn of the personal computer age," as many marketers so aptly put it just a few years later, computers were operated with typed in commands and I remember being incredibly frustrated with the need to memorize obscure command sets just to get some work done. 

Then the upstart computer company we sold for, Apple Computer, introduced a $9,995 business computer called the Lisa in 1983 (which, by the way, would cost >$21,000 in today's dollars). Told by our systems engineer (Doug) to, "No matter what Borsch, do NOT touch it since I've got it set up perfectly," I couldn't resist and snuck in to the training room after everyone else had gone home.

Doug had given me a five minute walk-through of how Lisa operated and I was confident I could put things back and not break it. I moved this thingy called a "mouse" and did what he'd done: double-clicked to open the word processor LisaWrite and proceeded to type a short paragraph which I then printed by going to "File > Print" and it printed. I then "Saved" the document in to a "Folder" on the "Desktop" and later "Trashed" it and it all worked!

Light bulbs burst forth over my head, glowing brightly, and I remember sitting there in the darkened training room thinking, "Oh my God. This thing Doug called a "user interface" is going to change how we all use computers" and boy did it ever as well as setting me on multi-decade path to understand world-class user interface design and leading thoughts on the matter. 

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Unshackle Your Team

Teacher-unshackleHaving guidelines and rules for public dissemination of information, photographs, video and even text is something every organization needs to do in some fashion. But if the obstacles you put in place for self-publishing and communication are so formidable, the normal human reaction is to do nothing or the resulting content is so bland and vanilla that no one consumes it, and I'm afraid that the latter is most often the case in the K-12 websites and external communications I, and others I know, have reviewed.

In the spring of this year I took several hours over multiple weeks to review the websites of the top 100 school districts. After having reviewed thousands of "Web 2.0" sites over the last 3+ years, I've developed a keen sense of what it takes to deliver a robust, easy to navigate, and communicative website that's intuitive and simple to use, and wanted to see what they looked like and offered.

For the most part, most of these districts delivered content well and with good navigation. What I was stunned by was the lack of any conversational tone in the writing or of the use of blogs as any kind of primary communication mechanism. If the latter was available (and a few sites did link to blogs) in every case I found the link I clicked jumped out to a Blogger, Wordpress.com or Edublogs hosted blog. They were not integrated within the site itself which, of course, says two things to me:

1) Blogs are not important enough to be integrated in to the website or core to district communication

2) These districts are still rooted in yesterday's communication paradigm: anything published has to be vetted, well scrubbed, and delivered in a mostly static way.

In conversations I've had with district operational and instructional technology leaders, the one thing that pops out over and over again is the necessity to limit and severely restrict the ability for teachers and staff to self-publish. 

The private sector has already dealt with that problem and is well past that paradigm and on a way to a new one: trust in employees coupled with an absolute minimum amount of guidelines, rules or regulations.  

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Jumping-for-Joy With Open Source in a Box

Man-jumpingWhether you use Moodle as a learning management system, Wordpress as a blogging engine or Drupal to run your websites, there are a lot of moving parts with these installations making management of them an ongoing support issue. In a day when you're experiencing profound budgetary constraints, finding a better-cheaper-faster way to use technology in your district or school is likely to pay off quickly.

One of the reasons cloud computing has taken off is not just the explosion in hosted applications, increased broadband and always-on & always-connected via mobile wireless internet, but instead is best summed up in the words of one Fortune 500 company CEO who said, "We outsource and offload as much of our I.T. infrastructure to the cloud as we can because we're in manufacturing, not the software business." That statement is all about how expensive it's become to deploy and maintain core software and how necessary it is to focus ones organizational resources on your core mission, not in areas which are ancillary to your goals and objectives.

As open source has accelerated in delivering mission-critical features and functions in a wide array of categories, cloud computing and open source projects have become indispensable for those interested in cutting costs, tapping in to a global ecosystem of rabid developers and what they're creating around those open source projects, and how global demand for cutting edge capabilities in those projects is driving ever faster feature and functionality releases.

Then when you see how the Obama Administration is embracing and driving open source adoption within the public sector with initiatives like Apps.gov (a must-visit site if you have any interest in open source or cloud computing and why it matters), then you can see there is little reason for you not to examine ways in which you can leverage all of this momentum and energy surrounding open source.

But your limited resources and, in many cases, your staff's modest technical skills at either the district or school level make it more challenging to adopt and deploy open source software instead of commercial offerings in K-12 education. Too often open source comes with limited hand-holding and technical support which means your mission-critical systems would likely suffer from downtime that might take longer to fix than if you were running those systems using commercial software.

Not only is that "open source vs. commercial" software paradigm changing quickly -- especially as the adoption of open source software continues unabated in most categories -- but the volume of support resources for these projects (i.e., in the form of books, how-to video sites, and local support groups of other I.T. professionals to name a few) has mitigated the risk significantly for any of us to choose open source software for our needs.

One company has taken a giant step forward in bring even greater efficiency and cost reduction to the world of open source software, and this is a firm you need to know about as you make decisions about your software infrastructure. 

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Screencasting: From Concept to Video

In our increasingly virtual world, one of the biggest challenges we face is succinctly and effectively delivering ideas, concepts, and richly detailed knowledge to those with whom we collaborate and connect over great distances or in the school across town. One easy, inexpensive and fun way to do that is with screencasting, an amazingly low cost method of imparting high quality knowledge to those who need it.

Used for many years in computer based training and video production, recording activity on a computer screen used to require very expensive scan convertors in order to record screen activity and merge it with voiceovers, ultimately ending up as a video. 

The great news is that tools have emerged that are either low cost or free and quite easy to use. Along with these new tools are the rapid developments in broadband deployments, computers with the horsepower and capability required to deliver screencasts (even in HD), tools for capturing what's on your screen and editing it into a video, along with services like YouTube for free delivery of that video, means that anyone who is a communicator is now in the sweet spot for leveraging screencasting. 

Why would you use screencasting and why now? 

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Surprise! Bloggers are Media Literate Communicators

Since I began blogging in 2004, I've looked to the thought leadership and analytics offered up by Technorati, a company whose sole focus is in the blogging space affectionately known as the "blogosphere", as a source of accurate data and carefully considered insights.

In anticipation of the Blogworld/NewMediaExpo conference held last week in Las Vegas, Technorati released their annual report over five days entitled, "State of the Blogosphere" for 2009 and, like always, it provides an interesting set of data, inferences and some conclusions which are always fodder for discussion and interesting food for thought.

"In a world that’s constantly changing — shocked by financial catastrophe and political upheaval, yet still moving faster every day — not much is constant. But as the 2009 State of the Blogosphere survey demonstrates, the growth of the blogosphere's influence on subjects ranging from business to politics to the way information travels through communities continues to flourish. In a year when revolutions and elections were organized by blogs, bloggers are blogging more than ever, and the State of the Blogosphere is strong."

While I encourage you to invest 20-30 minutes in reading the report for yourself, let me point out something that struck me which might be obvious to any educator investing any thinking time about the future of media literacy and the sorts of preparation students will need to be a participating citizen in a world that is one where virtual communications are at the core of our work, learning and social interactions.

There was one "forehead slap" moment reading State of the Blogosphere that compelled me to write this post and ensure that you were aware of the report and the surprising multiple media literacies being exhibited by bloggers within it. 

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One Word: "Mobile"

Plastics In the movie "The Graduate", the character played by Dustin Hoffman, Benjamin Braddock, is asked about his future and a successful friend of the family takes him out by the pool to tell him in secret about something revolutionary he must consider: "plastics" is what he's told with incredible seriousness (scene is here).

Played out today, this movie probably would've been set in Silicon Valley and the executive family friend would likely have been a venture capitalist pulling young Braddock aside to confide in him using this one word: "mobile".

Yes, mobile. With most phones quickly morphing in to computers in your pocket or purse with ubiquitous internet access to what's running in "the cloud", tens of thousands of useful applications connecting to a dizzying array of services, built-in GPS so your location (and whether you're 'on') can be leveraged for telling you things like what's the closest restaurant or movie theater, and that we can use voice (and soon Voice over Internet Protocol like Skype on 3G networks instead of just Wifi) means three things:

1) These devices will get more and more capable

2) The mobile internet will become increasingly core to our online experiences and intrinsic to our communication (and mobile networks will strain under the accelerating demand for data access)

3) The impact on access to information, on-demand learning and human connection and communication will continue to grow and our ability to foresee consequences of this impact are still emerging.

MarymeekerEarlier today at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, Morgan Stanley Managing Director, Mary Meeker, gave her eagerly anticipated annual presentation on the state of the global economy while being focused on the impact of internet-centric software and hardware technologies and the companies that supply them. 

Overall, Ms. Meeker points out that Morgan Stanley has identified several positive signs that the economy is recovering. There are many risks that impact all of us, and her overall presentation is worth going through slide-by-slide and pondering (it's available here for download or embedded below).

With respect to that huge trend in mobile, one that is key to this blog and one for you to consider deeply, her presentation was enlightening on several fronts, especially regarding the mobile market, social media use and growth rates.  

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Accelerating Change are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.