Learning Commons; a seriously exciting shift in education

I spent my day today touring around and discussing learning commons’ in both Rocky View and in Calgary, and I have to say, it has been some time since I have been as excited about a project as I am about our school’s transition to a full-fledged learning commons.

Due to space considerations, our traditional library lost it’s conventional ‘home’ in the school two years ago (I am now teaching in that space) and at the time it was a hard feature of our school to let go of.  Our librarian worked exceptionally hard to transition the books and other physical attributes of the library throughout the school, and met with success with this reimagining of how books could be shared and used.  It was a commendable effort, and truth be told, there are many features of the learning commons around our school right now, including the open sharing of learning tools, reading and literacy resources, interconnectedness of classrooms and production of 21st century learning artifacts using embedded and transferrable technology.  However, since the inception of our broad learning commons, the one thing that has been missing is that ‘home’ of the program, that sense of place.  Our librarian has a desk, yet in the true spirit of the learning commons, the truly adaptable learning space that is tailored to student learning simply was not available.

What we saw today was the way other schools have answered the call of transitioning spaces to meet the changing needs of students for learning.  Some of the changes were subtle, (such as slips of paper that teachers send with students working independently to notify the librarian what task they will be working on) and some were profound (using the Metis system to sort books as an alternative to the Dewey decimal system) but one thing that struck me was how carefully all schools have considered the transition to be made to the new learning commons structure.  While I have done some extensive reading on this topic lately, I wanted to share a few ideas I noticed doing walkthroughs today:

  • exceptional and thoughtful use of space, highlighted by specific furniture choices and configurations
  • easy to transition spaces, and the ability to configure several groups in one space
  • independence of students and adults with students in the use of the space and resources
  • resources that were ‘common’ material (including digital tools) that could be moved within and out of the space
  • open spaces and the desire for more natural light
  • thought and attention given to curricular connections and ease of access to highly linked materials
  • development of the library commons culture, and a desire by administration to support it as a hub of the school.
  • thoughtful use of technology including limiting use to one specific task at a time
  • creative solutions to issues regarding space and resources; a can-do attitude
  • the use of specific technologies to simplify processes for students (a touch-screen monitor instead of mouse for checking out books)
  • engaging activities to draw students and classes in
  • projects that inspire collaboration

I’m not sure what our final learning commons is going to look like, but I am certainly excited to be on this journey and to be part of the team.  What a great opportunity to support learning and help create something spectacular for our students!

Building a budget iPad cart for education

I was asked at one of my recent sessions if I could write a ‘how to’ for the iPad carts that I collaborated on building for 10 classrooms in my current school.  I am going to do that, but before I get to the ‘how,’ let me tell you the ‘why.’

When we were working toward going 1-1 with school-owned devices in our school, we realized that the process would be a drawn out one if we couldn’t cut some costs.  Retail cases, high-priced charging stations, and expensive management options were not in the cards for us. So we opted to get creative. It took some research, some elbow grease and some innovation, but we were able to come up with some very effective solutions for outfitting our devices, allowing us to get more iPads into more student hands sooner.  So, in the spirit of maximizing the little money we have in education fro these kinds of purchases, here is the process, and the pictures to help you build your own iPad mini cart!

*this cart MAY work for regular iPads as well depending how well you space the levels of the racks, but I have not tested it.

Our first goal was to find something to contain a class set of iPads.  Prior to going 1-1 in classes, we had provided 5 iPads per classroom and were using a power bar in a drawer to secure them in each room.  Clearly this was going to have to change when adding 20+ more devices.  So we looked at what could store that many iPads in one place.  One of my colleagues found a cart that fit the bill…from IKEA

The Raskog Cart was the right size to fit about 30 iPad Minis side by side on the three levels, and was available to us at only $60 per cart.  We needed some other accessories, but it was a good start.

Raskog Kitchen Cart from IKEA ($60)

Next we needed some way to keep all the iPads in the proper location on the cart. Thanks again to IKEA we found some dish racks that suited our purpose. (BOHOLMEN $9) When our local IKEA ran out we sourced some others from Amazon ($10) as well. We needed three of these racks for each cart, one on each level.

Boholmen dish rack from IKEA ($9)

 

Bamboo Wood Plate Holder from Amazon.ca

Power management was a major concern with these carts. We wanted to ensure that they would not be drawing too much power, and that we were not ‘daisy chaining’ power bars (plugging one into another.)  We had to find another way to power all these devices that would fit into fire code.  So, after some research we found these nifty devices:

Antec 4-Port USB Charging Station ($30) at memoryexpress.com

Each of these 4-port USB Charging Stations can charge 4 iPad Minis using one outlet plug. It took some research to find this particular charger because most USB hubs do not charge devices, even if they are powered.  With these hubs, they are strictly meant for charging, not syncing, so they fit the bill for a classroom cart.

With no more than 28 students in each of our elementary classrooms, we could use a 7 port power bar ($20) and 7 USB hubs to power all of our iPads.  If you needed more iPads on the cart, you could source larger power bars as well.

All that was left was to run wire and use an extraordinary amount of cable ties to keep it all in place.

 

I started by securing the racks in place, and then laying an iPad in the first slot to  measure how far out the charging cable needed to be, leaving a little play for students so they would not have to ‘pull’ the cord.

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Find the right spot for the cables, and a convenient length for each, then cable tie them into place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A view from the bottom, showing how each cable is tied to the mesh frame.  I then cable tied all the cords to one side of the cart leading down.  Note that the USB cables must be fed all the way from the bottom, unless you want them to have to travel down the outside of the cart to the Antec hubs.

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Lead the cables to the side and secure them to the inside of the cart leading down, Your cords will be different lengths at the bottom, but that’s ok.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once all your cables are leading through to the bottom, find the most convenient USB plug to put them in, wrap and tie down excess cord. Mine didn’t look pretty, but the key is that no cords will be hanging down and left to drag on the ground or get caught on anything.  Don’t spare the cable ties, get EVERY cord.

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You can see the attached power bar, 7 plugs leading to hubs, and many wires charging happy devices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is what the final product looks like in my classroom.

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The finished cart, with all the iPad minis tucked in for the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is compact, portable (the carts have wheels) and costs…$320 versus the thousands you could spend on a manufactured cart.  As I said earlier it takes some work, but ultimately we had much more money to spend on devices for students by using some ingenuity.  Another consideration we discussed was security, but our classroom doors remain locked in off times at our school, and during the summer months, these carts can easily be transferred to a secure location in the building.  At this time we are comfortable with that, but I know this may not be the case for all schools.  If security is a concern, you may wish to look at locking mesh bags as a security measure.

Let me know if you have questions, or found this useful.  I receive questions about our project all the time, and I am happy to respond as I can.

Dealing with mobile devices in the classroom

Trapped in PhoneI had a great conversation with a teacher at one of my sessions a couple of weeks back.  It was in the middle of my iPad Oddities session, and I had made a comment on the need to have expectations for effective mobile device use in the classroom.  When I told the group of educators that I had no problem with students using personal devices at certain times during class, this teacher wanted clarification.  For him, turning off a personal device was a matter of respect for the classroom, and what he was teaching.  It’s a scenario that I hear about often when I am doing these talks, and so I took a few minutes to distinguish for him, and the group, an important distinction we are making when we ask students to turn off cell phones; and why it may not be in our best interests.

Cell Phones as Extensions of Self

Today’s students see their devices much differently than any generation previous. No longer are they items of convenience for many of them, they serve as items of personal extension and connection.  So rather than being ‘relieved’ to turn off a device, as many of us might be, they feel cut off from their world.  Though the merits of this can be debated, the truth is that not having a device on and near them may be as much or more of a distraction to some of our students than having them on and actively used.  Our students want to be tapped in, and will worry about that connection when it is not present.

It also heavily concerns me whenever I have to put myself into conflict with a student. I abhor doing it, as my job as a teacher is to inspire and champion students.  As such I don’t want to create forced compliance within the classroom, I want to have processes that are natural and make sense to everyone in the room. Also, simplicity in this process works wonders with students who need reminders from time to time.

Developing Etiquette 

My discussion partner mentioned that students have a responsibility to learn etiquette in social situations about the use of mobile devices, which I agree with.  However, the difference may be that we need to instruct students on when to use devices instead of not using them.  I likened the scenario to the session I was speaking in.  Individuals were focused, attentive, and certainly not being rude as far as I was concerned.  In fact, it was a very engaged group, yet I know many of them were using their devices in many ways around the room.  It was up to them to decide if a given text message was important enough to draw them away from what was happening in the session, and I would hazard a guess that many of the attendees were still arriving at the learning they expected even with all the ‘distraction.’

This is not to say that students should have full reign with their devices, far from it in fact. What we need to understand is that just because their ‘off’ switch and impulse control may not be fully developed, doesn’t mean they are not engaged.  I spent many years at the back of the classroom drawing in a notebook long before mobile devices were an issue in schools, and no one thought to take away my paper and pencil.  I had teachers who would ask why I felt the need to draw and try to engage me in drawing things focused on what we were learning so it was a rehearsal of the message.  Perhaps this is the better way to look at these devices in the classroom. How can we use our students’ constant connection for benefit instead of distraction? We also must remember that we need to strike a balance with this.  There is a difference between a presentation on iPads in the classroom and learning how to deploy your parachute during a skydive.  We have the right to require specific attention at some times, but we may find that gaining attention for those times comes easier if we meet our students halfway during times when the requirement isn’t as heavy.

What works?

I don’t propose to have all the answers on this issue, but I have had success with a rather simple process. Whether using school-owned or personal devices, students are to leave them face-down in front of them on their desk (I usually say top right.) I discuss with students the very issues I have already raised in this post, then tell them that they are allowed to use their phones in a reasonable manner, as long as they are engaged in the classroom.  So, if their phone buzzes (not rings since it is on vibrate), they can pick it up, reply quickly and put it back down.  As long as it isn’t pervasive, there is nothing wrong with that.  Conversations are best left to other times, but just as many of us would in a meeting, PD session or many other circumstances, a quick text shouldn’t be an issue. I also ask out of courtesy that they use the devices above their desks.  In this way, they self-monitor better as well because there is no hiding what they are doing.  It makes a big difference when the use is a little less private to how much they are willing to engage in it.

Overall my goal is a happy classroom climate where we can all get to the exciting job of learning. I know I will never get 100% ‘compliance’ with cell phone use, but if that’s not what you’re shooting for then a functional and positive classroom simply becomes a nice place for everyone to work.

Thanks for reading!
Derek

Time for a reboot…

Power Button {Teaching and Learning, Education, Restart, Ed Tech}

I’m making some changes around here…

When I started my first blog (mrkeenan.com) about five years ago now, I started it with the intention of documenting the changes I was making to my classroom and practice.  It was a fun site, supported by my burgeoning interest in Twitter as a professional learning tool.  I posted app reviews and developed friendships with some wonderful developers who were looking to support teachers like me in the classroom by providing great software for the then new ‘iOS’ platform on iPods and then iPads.

Then things got busy.

I transitioned into completing a Masters program, started ghost writing, had another addition to the family, and while the blog continued to roll, it wasn’t the same thing to me anymore.  I wasn’t enjoying writing and posting on it as much. My blog received some great praise about how professional it was, and I now had some university professors using my content in their courses, but every post was a challenge and huge time commitment to get posted.  It’s great to put out fantastic resources and useful information, but I missed the connection I had with my readership and those who are trying to do great things for their students.  So, I started posting less and focusing on redesigning my personal life and fostering what had gotten me so passionate about education to start with.  That’s where I am now.  In a new school with new challenges, implementing and supporting technology from a humanist perspective.

So, here’s the reboot.

I’ve decided to move the blog, simplify it, and post on what I am passionate about, not always on professional learning, not always on apps, not always even on education.  I hope you enjoy the change; and if you’ve been with me from the beginning, I hope you read this post with a smile on your face as we get started having fun again!