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Lost Potential: Confronting the Cost of Free EdTech

Guest post by Sandra Kuipers

Free educational technology is not necessarily open educational technology and failing to make this distinction impacts education on an individual and global level. Online resources and technologies present attractive opportunities to infuse learning with digital media and content. However, these resources are not created equally: they may be either open, provided with a license that enables remixing and sharing; or they may be proprietary, provided with a license that protects and restricts their use (Lessig, 2009; Wiley, 2014). This inequality poses a critical issue in education technology (EdTech). Crucially, these licenses can easily become confused or overlooked when the resources themselves are free. In this critical reflective paper, I confront what the ambiguity between free and open means for education and what it costs. Beyond monetary costs, free educational resources and technology accrue opportunity costs, which need to be considered each time educators choose between free and open EdTech.

Free vs. Open

The difference between paid and free is a lot clearer than the difference between free and open. Educators and institutions are acutely aware of how much money they’re spending on their technology and resources. However, the difference is not as clear when they choose between free and open EdTech. In my inquiry into this topic, I realized this distinction was often neglected or misunderstood, which presented a compelling area to investigate further. My aim is not to argue the case between paid and open EdTech, which is well stated (Blomgren, 2018; Olcott, 2012; Wiley, Bliss, & McEwen, 2014), but rather to critically examine the resources and technology which are already free.

As an open source developer considering the topic of free EdTech, I found myself asking: Why do creators choose to make something free, yet not open? Why not take that extra step? I was curious to consider the implications of EdTech that is free and closed, versus EdTech that is free and open. Throughout this inquiry, when I use the term free EdTech, I am referring to resources and technology that are free yet proprietary: those that are protected under a restrictive license. When I use the term open EdTech, I am referring to resources and technology which are both free and open: those that are provided with a permissive license. These include the Creative Commons license (Lessig, 2009) or one of the many open source licenses, including the GNU General Public License or MIT License (Open Source Initiative, n.d.). This distinction is critical to establish, as my inquiry has revealed a high degree of ambiguity in this topic.

Free has many meanings. In the software world, this ambiguity is famously characterized through Stallman’s (2002) slogan: “Think free as in free speech, not free beer” (p. 133). This statement highlights the difference in English between giving something away “for free” (gratis) and providing something “with little or no restriction” (libre) (“Gratis versus libre,” n.d.). In the copyright world, one meaning does not necessarily imply the other: something can be given away for free yet still retain a proprietary license (Lessig, 2009). Stallman’s analogy conveys the misconceptions surrounding the word free and how these misconceptions can affect the licenses that creators choose to apply to their work. Although Stallman’s statement was aimed at software development, the ambiguity of the word free also impacts education. Educators and institutions continuously choose between which technologies to use and invest in (Weller, 2018), and each decision represents an opportunity cost.

Opportunity Costs

The opportunity cost of choosing free EdTech over open EdTech may be difficult to assess but is nonetheless vital for educators to consider. Opportunity cost, a term used in economics, refers to “the loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen” (“Opportunity Cost”, n.d.). Although primarily used in an economic context, opportunity cost considers any potential loss when making a decision. When both alternatives are already free, as in the case of free versus open EdTech, the consideration entails many hidden non-monetary costs. Assessing these costs requires looking at the “the bigger picture of educational technology” (Selwyn, 2010, p. 70), from the micro-level of individuals to the macro-level of globalization. In my inquiry, I’ve explored these opportunity costs on an individual, local, and global level.

Individual Costs

Free EdTech may not have a monetary cost, but it often offsets its expense through other means. Student data may be collected, from clicks and page views to individual metrics of aptitude and behaviour, and critics of online privacy are wise to question what is being done with this data (Polonetsky & Tene, 2014). For example, Google Classroom is a free educational platform, provided by the search-engine giant under the banner of its Google Apps for Education program. Lindh and Nolan (2016) warn that concealed behind Google’s offering of a “free public service” is a business model for online marketing. Through this business model, “Google’s information on users’ behaviour on the web is collected through the DoubleClick server and is thereafter packaged and sold to advertisers” (p. 647). Lindh and Nolan argue that educational institutions assuming that Google is providing them with a free service have been severely misled. “It is, in fact Google that has access to free digital labour, as people through their everyday practices produce the commodity that creates Google’s economic wealth” (p. 647). In the crucial and often alarming topic of data privacy and surveillance, free EdTech is not the same as open EdTech. An individual’s privacy is a critical consideration among the unseen opportunity costs of free EdTech.

Local Costs

Resources that are not open remain fixed in the original context in which they were created. Blomgren (2018) notes how publishers and content creators may “attempt to provide accurate content” (p. 61), yet they cannot possibly contextualize learning materials for every local area or culture. The result is that the context of proprietary resources is either highly generalized or relates to a specific instance that may not be relevant to local learners. Localizing and contextualizing learning is an essential part of how learners connect and engage with new topics: curriculum becomes more relevant when it relates to a student’s local area or current events (Davis, Sumara, & Luce-Kapler, 2000). Blomgren suggests that the “the need for place-based learning highlights how the older model of educational [resources] has become challenged by the [Open Educational Resource (OER)] movement” (p. 62). Free educational resources may help a teacher build their lesson plans, but unless those resources are also open, they do not provide the opportunity to localize or contextualize those lessons.

Global Costs

Free EdTech is often presented under the banner of altruism but may ultimately fall into the trap of solutionism. Morozov (2013) warns that humans are increasingly looking at technological solutions for problems that are necessarily social and cultural. This technological solutionism often doesn’t address the root of a problem and is more than likely to have unintended consequences. In my critical inquiry, I looked at Khan Academy, which promotes a “mission to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere” (Khan Academy, 2018, para. 2). This platform provides visually appealing educational resources, including videos, step-by-step tutorials, and discussion boards. However, looking towards the goal of democratizing education, Hansen and Reich (2015) found that free learning resources do not necessarily “benefit the disadvantaged” or “decrease gaps between rich and poor” (p. 1245). Presenting free EdTech as a solution to global education reduces the issue to a matter of cost, which research into the digital divide has found is not the only consideration.

Several of the free EdTech platforms available online are products of educational philanthropy, which raises questions of motives and social implications. Regan and Steeves (2019) examine the impact of technology company foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. They cautioned that EdTech offered by these foundations may come at a social cost, including a weakening sense of “the public in public education”, and desensitization of youth to the “surveillance state” (para 3). While free and attractive to educators, these initiatives aim to use big data and learning analytics as a solutionist approach to issues in education. “Rather than supporting smaller class sizes and better-paid teachers, elites such as the Gates and Walton foundations are advancing ideas linked to measurement, testing and performance” (Polonetsky & Tene, 2014, p. 19). EdTech from billionaire philanthropists may be offered for free, but it is not necessarily open. Rather than open EdTech authored by and representative of the many, this free EdTech represent the motives and perceived solutions of the few.

Read and Write Culture

The ability to copy one another is central to the human learning process. In Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, Laland (2018) identifies copying as a primary mechanism of cultural evolution. Human culture evolved by watching, learning, repeating, and improving on each other’s actions. In considering the implications between free and open, I wondered: What happens to learning when we prevent this essential process of mimicking and modifying creative works? The choice between free and open EdTech revolves around the type of culture educators want to foster: a read-only culture, or a read-and-write culture of iterative and generative creation (Lessig, 2008). Openness is an invitation: it offers the potential to participate in the evolution of human knowledge and creativity.

Educators need not be passive consumers of the content they teach. Jenkins (2009) illustrates how the internet offers the potential of a “participatory culture,” particularly in education. Yet, this potential relies on the inherent rights and affordances of its digital infrastructure. In Free Culture, Lessig (2004) explores how copyrights and patents are a relatively recent invention and tend to benefit corporations over individuals. For much of human history, Lessig explains, creative works were not controlled by the law. Inventors and artists throughout history were free to imitate and copy each other: and they did. Educators, as participants in the continuum of human culture, need to be acutely aware of copyright and licensing issues. If educators come to see free EdTech as “good enough,” then they have lost a freedom truly essential to human culture.

Realizing Potential

An opportunity cost, however, does not matter if the opportunity itself would be wasted. In my inquiry into the issue of free versus open EdTech, it was easy to fall into the trap of open determinism. Open licensing offers potential and potential alone. Adding an open license to resources, software, and technology does not automatically solve issues of relevancy, diversity, privacy, and contextualization (Blomgren, 2018; Olcott, 2012). The difference between free and open EdTech is moot if the potential isn’t realized.

Education can benefit from openness. However, as an advocate of open source and open culture, I realized I need to temper my enthusiasm with a pragmatic perspective. Open Educational Resources (OER), for example, face many challenges, including discovery, sustainability, quality, and localization (Wiley, Bliss, & McEwen, 2014). Olcott (2012) reminds educators and researchers that “there is no silver bullet solution to the “open” road ahead. OER are not a panacea for resolving all the issues in a global society or in the higher education sector” (p. 289). As advocates of openness present open licensing as a social good, they too are in danger of perpetuating “technological solutionism” (Morozov, 2013). The potential that open licensing offers needs to be met with the intention and empowerment to utilize it. The cost of free EdTech may be lost potential, but for potential to matter in the first place, it must be realized.

Final Thoughts

Both the concept of free and the concept of open are hard to define. My inquiry into this topic began with a look at the ambiguity of the word free. However, the concept of open suffers from a similar ambiguity. Cronin (2017) notes that “open education narratives and initiatives have evolved in different contexts, with differing priorities” (p. 16). As an open source developer, I realize I can often be blind to how confusing the concept of open can be for the uninitiated. Cronin explains that open is used to describe everything from resources, to teaching practices, to technologies, as well as to refer to the values of open culture itself. This wide “umbrella term” for open (Weller, 2104) may make it difficult for educators to understand the specific implications of using open technology and open resources. Watters (2014) also “cautions that while such multivalence can be a strength, it is also a weakness when the term becomes so widely applied that it is rendered meaningless” (Watters, as cited in Cronin, 2017, p. 16).

Communicating the opportunity cost of free versus open EdTech is an issue of both awareness and articulation. In 2007, the Cape Town Open Educational Declaration boldly declared that, through open initiatives, “educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge” (para 1). However, in the follow-up 10th Anniversary project in 2017, they recognize that there remains much work to be done to realize this vision. “The challenge is not in reaching enough people, but rather in articulating the meaning and value of open education in a way that resonates with mainstream audiences” (Cape Town Open Educational Declaration 10th Anniversary, 2017, p. 4). To help teach educators the opportunity cost of free versus open EdTech, advocates of openness first need to articulate what open education actually means.

When educators see the word free, they need to be encouraged to look closer and dig deeper. Free is not the enemy of open, but it can easily overshadow it. Blomgren (2018) suggests that “rather than simply being for or against [Open Educational Resources], educators at all levels need to be deeply aware of the various and connected implications of the OER transformation” (p. 65). This awareness begins with an intentional decision for educators to learn about open EdTech: to look beyond issues of free or paid, and critically assess the underlying licenses of the technologies they use.

The cost of free EdTech is lost potential: the difference between a read-only culture and a read-and-write culture. If educators wish to create participatory, contextually relevant learning opportunities for their students, they need to be aware of which culture they’re choosing to foster. As stewards of human knowledge and creativity, educators need to be aware of copyright and licensing issues. However, awareness alone is not enough. Educators and advocates of openness need to take action. We have work to do. Realizing the potential of open licensing requires a commitment to articulating the value of open culture, as well as empowering others to reuse, remix, and redistribute educational technology.


Blomgren, C. (2018). OER awareness and use: The affinity between higher education and K-12. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 19(2).

Cape Town Open Education Declaration (2007). Retrieved June 1, 2020, from

Cape Town Open Education Declaration 10th Anniversary (2017). Retrieved June 1, 2020, from

Davis, B., Sumara, D. J., & Luce-Kapler, R. (2000). Engaging minds: Changing teaching in complex times. Routledge.

Gratis versus libre. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved April 22, 2020, from

Hansen, J. D., & Reich, J. (2015). Democratizing education: Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses. Science, 350(6265), 1245–1248.

Khan Academy. (2018). Khan Academy Annual Report 2018. Retrieved April 18, 2020, from

Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the 21st century. MIT Press.

Laland, K. N. (2018). Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How culture made the human mind. Princeton University Press.

Lessig, L. (2004). Free Culture: How big media uses technology and the law to lock down culture and control creativity. New York: Penguin Press. Retrieved from

Lessig, L. (2008). Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy. New York: Penguin Press. Retrieved from

Lessig, L. (2009). Code: And other laws of cyberspace. Retrieved from

Lindh, M., & Nolin, J. (2016). Information we collect: Surveillance and privacy in the implementation of Google Apps for Education. European Educational Research Journal, 15(6), 644–663.

Morozov, E. (2013). To save everything, click here: The folly of technological solutionism. PublicAffairs.

Olcott, D. (2012). OER perspectives: Emerging issues for universities. Distance Education, 33(2), 283–290.

Open Source Initiative. (n.d.). Licenses & standards: About open source licenses. Retrieved June 3, 2020 from

Opportunity Cost. (n.d.). In Lexico Dictionary by Oxford. Retrieved from

Polonetsky, J., & Tene, O. (2014). Who is reading whom now: Privacy in education from books to MOOCs. Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law, 11(4), 921–935. Retrieved from

Regan, P. M., & Steeves, V. (2019). Education, privacy, and big data algorithms: Taking the persons out of personalized learning. First Monday. Retrieved from

Selwyn, N. (2010). Looking beyond learning: Notes towards the critical study of educational technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(1), 65–73.

Stallman, R. (2002). Free Software, Free Society: Selected essays of Richard M. Stallman. GNU Press: Boston MA, USA. Retrieved from

Weller, M. (2018). Twenty years of EdTech. EDUCAUSE Review, 53(4), 34–48. Retrieved from

Wiley, D. (2014). Defining the “open” in open content and open educational resources. Retrieved April 25, 2020, from

Wiley, D. A., Bliss, T. J., & McEwen, M. (2014). Open educational resources: A review of the literature. Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology: Fourth Edition, 781–789.


Copyright icon from Wikimedia Commons, under Public Domain

Can We Stop Software From Eating School?

This article was originally posted on

In 2011, Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist and co-founder of the venerable Netscape, noted that “software is eating the world”. His observation was intended to reflect the way that computers, and the software they run, were flipping the business world on its head. Nine years on, and Andreessen’s words ring truer than ever. If anything, it seems that he understated the shifts we were seeing and feeling. In 2020, you could reasonably look at the changes of the past decade and say that “software has eaten our culture”.

“Software is eating the world” — Marc Andreessen

Picking up on this thread, Michael Harris’s The End of Absence takes a long look at the peculiar, and revolutionary time, in which we live. It draws our attention to the fact that there will never be another time like this: one in which adults have experienced the world both with and without the Internet. Our current observations, he notes, offer a final glimpse into a world that will soon be forgotten. If this sounds like hyperbole, then just consider how much time you spend thinking about life before Gutenberg’s printing press, which was the 15th century’s own version of the Internet. In the same way that we have, as a culture, forgotten what it was like to be pre-literate, we’ll soon forget what it was like to be pre-digital.

What will we fail to miss most, asks Harris? Absence is his answer.

If you are over the age of 35, you will probably remember a childhood and adolescence filled with absence: the absence of stimulation, fun and company. It was, for many of us, a time with ample opportunities to be alone, to think, to ponder, to be creative, to read deeply, to be bored. These activities, although we did not always relish them, forged the minds we carry around with us today. They enabled a culture in which deep thought was valued and valuable.

Unless we are very careful, the intrusion of devices and software into our lives will mean that our children will never have these experiences. Which will mean that by the time we are grandparents, these thoughts and feelings will seem old-fashioned, musty and dull. And then, in a flash, they’ll be gone.

Harris is far from alone in voicing these concerns. Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together, discerned the corroding effects of digital dependency almost a decade ago. More recently Adam Atler, William Powers, Andrew Keen and many others have all written compellingly about the changes we are undergoing. Richard Louv and Lenore Skenazy demonstrate how these shifts play out in the lived experience of our children.

Social network, circa 1980

If you remain unconvinced, then perhaps this short read by Benjamin Conlon, focusing on how childhood has changed, might help you to imagine how difficult it must be for our children to daydream, imagine, create and get lost.

Given all of this, it might be fair to say that we are set on a path which leads to software eating everything. Whilst this will have sounded excitingly disruptive to venture capitalists in 2011, it should, today, strike us as alarming.

It might not be surprising then, that for all of the energy schools are pouring into software, there is a growing concern among educators about where we are heading. As Conlon observes:

In many districts teachers are encouraged to employ Twitter and Instagram for classroom updates. This is a bad thing. It normalizes the process of posting content without consent and teaches children that everything exciting is best viewed through a recording iPhone. It also reinforces the notion that ‘likes’ determine value. Rather than reading tweets from your child’s teacher, talk to your children each day. Ask what’s going on in school. They’ll appreciate it.

This thinking represents a distinct change of tack. It represents schools pushing back against the ascendancy of big tech. It suggests that swimming downstream through the dominant culture might not be the right thing to do.

Swimming upstream instead of down?

It was with all of this in mind that Toby Newton (Head of School at ICHK Secondary) and I spent a sunny autumn day in 2018 sketching the outlines of a new ICT policy. By this point, it had become clear to us that our existing structures, which were based on the techno-utopian thinking prevalent at the time of their writing, were no longer fit for purpose. It was also apparent that drastic change was needed, and that it would not be easy to pull off.

What followed was 9 months of intense discussion, drafting, consultation, introspection and iterative improvement. The whole process relied on exactly the kind of solitary deep focus that software seemed to be imperiling, coupled to short bursts of intense collaboration. Almost all of the work was kept hidden from students, as we asked ourselves how we could orchestrate a sea change, without coming across as a bunch of old, irrelevant reactionary Luddites.

The resulting policy was introduced to students in June 2019, via a series of unannounced simulations and presentations. Its aim was no less than reclaiming for students some of the quiet space commandeered by digital technology. The primary vehicle for this was a set of protocols that would invite students to put away their own mobile phones, whilst refocusing teacher attention on how we use laptops for learning.

ICHK Secondary’s new ICT Policy

Although I find our students to be very attentive and engaged, launch day was the most striking example I’ve seen of having their undivided attention. A handful of individuals, those most tethered to their devices, had felt the tremors approaching, but most were caught unawares.

Where I had, during some dark sleepless night, feared a visceral backlash of phone-deprived adolescent rage, we saw a remarkable degree of thoughtfulness. There were many good questions, the odd wounded look, and a range of very sensible suggestions for making the new policy more workable.

School life, as it will, marched on. But the culture had been distinctly altered. Where, at break, we previously saw growing numbers of students conspicuously using mobile devices, we now see playing cards, games around whiteboards, students talking and playing. There are more students playing sports on the playground, and the old primary school favourite, foursquare, has enjoyed an unexpected resurgence among older students. During class time we’ve seen the near total disappearance of mobile phones, and the distraction that attends them. Our senior students, who have more leeway, have proven reliable role models, in carrying their devices but using them discreetly. Students no longer wait for class to begin by playing with their laptops. Teachers are more aware of their own role in modelling positive digital behaviour.

Given the danger of newly-bored and untethered students, we worked to create a physical and social environment that supports socialisation and playfulness, introducing giant board games, installing more seating and putting on lunch time activities. Phone lockers, now installed in every form room, offer a structural change that allows students to use one material technology to control another. All of this builds on our ongoing work in offering students an epistemic apprenticeship, in which they learn positive habits and skills that will serve them throughout their adult lives. The foundations of our school remain choice, adult-adult conversations and an absence of traditional school behaviour management.

Ultimately, whilst we might want to blame children for not controlling their device use, it is not really their fault at all. As Adam Alter (Irresistible) makes abundantly clear, it is adults, acting under contemporary economic pressures, who have deliberately designed the environment our students find themselves in. Having found a plausible and popular narrative, many schools have, under the tired banner of “21st century learning”, jumped on board the digital bandwagon. What has taken some time to become apparent, is the extent to which our biological imperatives to switch attention towards opportunities and threats have been hijacked. These “orienting responses” (Behave, Robert M Sapolsky), have been turned against us because it has become economically and culturally advantageous, and technically possible, to do so.

The hijacking of our orienting response

As educators it is imperative that we recognise these forces, and work to create an environment that guides students to be able to judge both the value and the costs of a wide range of human technologies. We cannot simply turn out backs on the many advantages that digital living offers, but neither can we remain complicit in the greatest heist of all time: the theft of our collective attention.

Phones in particular, for their many benefits, carry a massive set of interconnected costs. However, we, as educators and parents, can counter these through the use of other technologies, such as well thought out protocols and policies, phone lockers, the freedom to roam, the freedom to connect in person and dinner together as a family. During such times, we might stop and consider the extent to which words that once held meaning associated with face to face intimacy and organic emotional growth are now connected to a much less rich sense of what they could or should represent. For example, how many of our online “friends” serve the functions that a real friend ought to. Likewise for “community”, “contact”, “like”, “share” and a growing lexicon of repurposed words. It is in these shifts that we can divine the deconstruction of much that we ought to hold dear.

Of course, the best technology of all might just be adults who reliably role model a positive culture around device usage, and who revel in absence, spontaneity, exploration and fun. As Neil Postman notes, perhaps a little stridently, in Technopoly, “a family that does not or cannot control the information environment of its children is barely a family at all”. Our actions as adults, like it or not, form a large part of this very same information environment.

The changes we’ve experienced at ICHK Secondary over the past 18 months have been neither straightforward, nor pain free. However, we believe that when we draw firm boundaries against the encroachment of digital devices, we stand to gain tremendously. Along the way we have greatly appreciated the ongoing support of the many parents and educators who have voiced their joy at our new policy. We hope that, over time, yet more people will join us on this journey.


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I Hate Grades

I recently gave a 2-minute nano presentation at 21st Century Learning’s Hong Kong TeachMeet, entitled I Hate Grades. It was a pleasure to be able to speak openly about something very close to my heart, and the reception from the assembled teachers was really positive. Unfortunately the event was not recorded, and one of my colleagues commented that he was said to have missed it. So, as the next best thing, I have done a Photo Booth recording of essentially the same content. Whilst it’s hard to be quite as dynamic and engaging in front of a laptop, the video still gets the key points across.

A broader view of my approach to assessment and curriculum, and how it compares to mainstream education is available in my previous post, The Educator’s Delusion.

Adventures In School Management

Today I am presenting at 21CLHK9, along with Mel Varga, hoping to give other schools a look at the process ICHK and TIS have been through in variously building, implementing and improving Gibbon.

The aim is to suggest that schools need not be beholden to corporate interests in how they operate and manage their data, and that there is value in community, openness and design by educators.

Gamer Spotting For Teachers

wasdThis post was originally posted on the #teachICHK site at ICHK.

As in any school, our students do sometimes get distracted in class. However, rather than traditional distractions of days gone by (passing notes, firing spit balls), we see that distraction often takes the form of off-task laptop use (chatting online, checking social media, gaming). In particular, gaming is a temptation that certain students find it hard to resist.

In the past we had a system of being able to monitor student screens remotely (at least in the Secondary school), but this proved incompatible with building trust and forming adult-adult interactions, and was fairly useless at any rate (those kids who wanted to game worked out how to disable it).

A much more effective way to spotting students gaming in class is to look out for the following tells that students produce subconsciously. These often apply to non-gaming off-task activities as well, although they are more obvious during gaming. Try to keep an eye out for these, and approach students who you suspect of gaming, so you can discuss the issue.

  • Keyboard & Mouse Use – different activities produce different patterns of keyboard and mouse use. For example, during a typing activity, we would expect students to use the full range of keys. If they are focusing on one part of the keyboard particularly (see image below for common gaming keys), or predominantly on the trackpad/mouse, they are most likely not typing.
  • Body Language – students busy gaming often becoming really immersed in their game world, and seemingly forgetting where they are IRL. You might see students leaning in close to their screen, getting physically worked up, or suppressing the urge to call out.
  • Screen Hiding – often students will try and sit in a position where their screens are out of sight, perhaps against a wall or under a desk. Sometimes this is innocent (just students getting comfortable), other times it is not.
  • Three Finger Swipe – by keeping a game on a separate virtual desktop on their Mac, students can quickly swipe back to work. This three-finger swipe is a good sign that something is being hidden.
  • The Guilty Look – a three finger swipe is often preceded by a quick look up, if a student suspects you are heading their way.

With any luck you can put these tells to use to signal to your students know that you are aware of what they are doing, making them less likely to try it on. At the same time, consider why your students are distracted, and find ways to get them more engaged through curriculum appeal, active group work, non-laptop based learning, etc.

Our School As A Box

Our School As A Box ThumbThis year staff at ICHK Secondary started the school year with a great PD session lead by one of our new team members, Phil Morgan. A deep thinker around creativity and education, Phil brought us up to speed on some ideas around creative thinking, and then challenged us to decorate a box that could be used to sell our school. Divided into groups, every member of staff became obsessively engaged in the task, with the allocated hour’s working time disappearing in no time.

The 6 resulting items were a wonder to behold, and incorporated a huge range of bizarre styles, ideas, tricks and features, including one with a mobile phone installed inside, so you could capture your image and become part of the product.

In the end, we were asked to vote for our favourite, a process that everyone was so invested in that we elected to skip our coffee break. Much to my surprise, my lovely group (including Veronica, Jimmy, Erin and Hannah), ended up winning, with the design below.


The box is now in a display case in school, accompanied by the text below:

ICHK. Our box is, like our school, brightly presented, precisely formed with attention to detail, and the result of a collaborative team effort. It’s bright colours, bold lettering and green adornment reflect an intentionally small school with unique aims, nestled in Hong Kong’s verdant North.
As a small, personal school, we look to educate students as individuals: one at a time. Our box seeks to represent this individual learning journey as a ladder, which a student is climbing, supported from below by each and every member of the teaching team. The student, stating “I can’t do it…yet” is aware that learning is tough, but that with perseverance, effort, support and a growth mindset, he too can “make it”.
The “it” to which the student aims is the goal of Learning Together, Thoughtfully, to which our Head of School cheerfully exhorts us from his cutout in the side of the box. He is within the box, at its heart, but also looking outwards as he charts the way forward. Yet, and this is key, he is also on the front of the box, guiding the thriving student as part of the team.
On the side and back of the box we see a list of Ingredients and a Nutrition Guide. These show a school formed of Thriving Students, Best Possible Teachers, an Environment For Living and Learning and much more. They suggest a serving size of 1 (child at a time), with a total number of servings of 278 (students in the school). The sum total of the box offers nutrition in the form of appropriate quantities of Attitudes, Skills and Knowledge, and a 100% RDI of Direction-Alignment-Commitment.
Ultimately, box and school are both so much more than the sum of their parts.

In closing up the session, Phil introduced us to a number of interesting books around creativity, including the one from which the box activity is drawn: Game Storming. Overall this was one of the best PD and team building sessions I have ever attended.

End Of Year Assessment, 2015-16

Potato_cv_dejimaAlthough I try not to over-assess my students, they still come under scrutiny from me in terms of their work and approaches to learning. It only seems fair then, that I come under scrutiny from them. So, it is quite a long standing tradition that I issue a survey at the end of each year, and then set targets for the following year, based on student input. When I started teaching, this was as much to affirm that I was doing the right thing: of late it has become an exercise in ongoing professional development, as I seek to hone my craft and improve what it is that I offer to my students. This year’s survey was issued a few weeks ago, and with 33% of students having responded, it seemed like a good time to have a look at the results, make some judgements, and feedback to students. The result was the email below:

Dear students,

Thanks to all of you who took the time to complete the ICT feedback survey I sent out a couple of weeks ago. I appreciate your time and candour: your honest input is really useful as I try and become a better teacher. Below I will summarise some of the conclusions I have come to from your data, if you are interested in following up.

In total, 46 people filled out the survey, which is 33% of all ICT students at ICHK. Although not a high number in absolute terms, this is a reasonable percentage for survey responses, and so should allow us to draw some useful, if not definitive, conclusions.

I will split the feedback into several sections, as highlighted below. Things you might want to take action on are marked in red.

General Mood

It seems that on the whole, Y7-9 students at ICHK value their ICT education, and feel it is worthwhile, as indicated by a mean of 3.8, and the distribution seen below. This is something I feel in the classroom, with most students working hard and trying to learn as much as they can from their classroom time.

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Over the course of this year I have made an effort to shift more interactions towards adult-to-adult (in Transactional Analysis terms). Although I know I am still not doing this as much as I would like, your feedback suggests I have improved.

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Inline image 4I feel the level of respect is really mutual, with most students doing their best to take things seriously, and act in an adult fashion, most of the time. This certainly makes class more fun and rewarding : )

Free Learning

Although we piloted Free Learning last year, this was the first year in which we have done a lot of it. On the whole it has proven popular (as shown below), although there were some concerns about not having enough variety of topics, and in the balance of time for free vs traditional learning. These are points I will try and address in the section below.

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Improvements For Next Year

In terms of what might be improved, the following stand out:

  • Free Learning Variety
    • Some students commented that there are not enough Free Learning units in areas they are interested in.
    • At current I am working to add in some HT units, which will intersect with ICT, and which you can study using your ICT class time.
    • Other teachers are starting to add content to Free Learning too. Eventually we hope to have a massive library of units, with areas of interest for everyone.
    • If you have any suggestions for things you would like to see, please let me know by reply email.
  • Free Learning Balance
    • At current Y7 is light on Free Learning, whilst Y8 is heavy. I will see if there is anything I can do to adjust this in the coming year.
    • If there are any normal units you think should be dropped or moved, or if you have strong views on this area, let me know by reply email.
  • Outdoor Time
    • We have had a little more outdoor lessons this year, but according to at least 8 of you, still not enough.
    • If you want to work outdoors, ask at the beginning of any lesson. I can’t always say yes, due to the nature of the lesson, but will try to make this happen as much as I can.
  • Air Conditioning
    • As with every year, quite a few of you commented on the AC situation in C108 (although this year no one commented on the smell, which is one of the things I aimed to improve this year ; )
    • This is one thing I really will not compromise on, as it is a core belief for me, for the following reasons:
      • The more aircon you use, the hotter you feel when you go outdoors: I sweat much less than I used to now that I use less AC.
      • Hong Kong’s air is often very polluted, partly due to our reliance on coal to power our homes, schools and offices. Anything we can do to reduce our output of airborne pollutants is positive…this is also why I choose not to drive a car to school.
      • Our atmosphere is accumulating CO2 at an alarming rate, and we are only beginning to understand the possible negative effects of this, as express through climate change. Anything we can do to limit this is good.
      • We are running down global supplies of fossil fuels, and should prepare for a future where we have less energy to feast on: why cool the air, just so it can be immediately heated by nature?
      • Humans have thrived for thousands of years with no air conditioners. Yes, you might be hot and uncomfortable, but we are a resilient species, and grit is something you can learn through practice. Train your mind to ignore the discomfort.
    • In short, you experiencing air-conditioning in C108 is about as unlikely as me becoming an iPhone user, tourist travel to Mars or Donald Trump acting like a nice human being.
    • Sometimes it is worth standing by beliefs you feel are right, even if they are unpopular. Sorry!

Apologies for the long post. Here is a Creative Commons potato (by Fk on Wikimedia Commons, shared under CC BY-SA):

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Have a great summer : )


PS, This email is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.


What Does Technology Integration Look Like?

TransformativeIt was pointed out to me last night (not unfairly, I confess), that whilst I have a clear model in my mind of what great classroom integration of technology looks like, perhaps I have not articulated this clearly to those I work with. In the past my approach has been to drip feed ideas to various people within school, hoping to find fertile ground for certain approaches. In addition, PD sessions have been used to show a variety of uses for technology. In retrospect, such learning moments have been, for a variety of reasons, too dispersed, infrequent and ad hoc to perhaps make a complete picture. This post, then, is an attempt to shed some light on the approach I would like to see taken in integrating technology into the classroom.

Any technological advance provides us potential new ways to approach learning, and educators have a long history of adopting new technologies with the aim of improving what we do. However, most of the integration we see does not fundamentally change education, but rather provides a more complex, expensive way of doing the same old thing. A classic example of this is using a 1:1 laptop program to have students research and type papers, which provides very little of interest that could not be achieved with pen and paper in a library. What we need are integrations that allow students to do new, powerful things, not possible or practical without the technology being added in. This is the heart of the very popular SAMR model, which promotes Redefinition over Substitution (with Augmentation and Modification as a middle ground).

So, what does this empowering, transformative practice look like when implemented in the classroom? Whilst there is no one approach, some of the entries below might give an idea of the range and scope of what is possible. Each idea links to skills and conteps currently taught in many schools, and accepted as being positive, useful things to know and do. As a side note, these ideas are grouped into subjects, not because this is the best way to teach, but because most teachers are subject teachers, and approach their work from that perspective. There is no reason ideas listed in one subject area cannot be applied to other subject areas.

  • English
    • Persuasion & Publishing – ask students to come up with a literary product that they would like to create, produce and sell (for example, a coffee table book on Minecraft). Using graphic editing software (e.g. Acorn, GIMP, Photoshop), put together some mock up pages. Using collaborative writing software (e.g. Google Drive) to write up a blurb, sales pitch and press release. Create a crowdfunding campaign (e.g. Kickstarter) to raise the money necessary to have the book printed, and take this to your community and beyond (using Twitter, Facebook). Create and publish the book. Place the book in your library.
    • Creative, Non-Linear Writing – expand your students’s view of what creative writing can be by using Google Forms to build an open-ended text that can be read in different ways. See Google Forms Choose Your Own Adventure for an example.
    • Rich Writing – use Storify to enable students to create writing with rich multimedia elements, such as Twitter and YouTube embeds. This might be used to create a fictional story, based on real world events.
    • Graphic Representation – take a scene from a story or play, and ask students to represent it with a rich graphic mashup, using graphic editing software (e.g. Acorn, GIMP) and Creative Commons media. This means that students need to decode the text, and then re-encode it into a new format, which promotes questioning and assists with comprehension.
    • Book As Movie Trailer – similar to the graphic representation idea above, ask students to plan, film and produce a cinematic trailer for a movie version of a book.
    • Emoji Story – ask students to write a story using mainly (or only) emoji to express a narrative, and see how different students interpret it. Or, work in reverse and convert an existing text (e.g. Hamlet) into emoji.
  • Mathematics
    • QR Code Maths Hunt – find locations around school where mathematical concepts (angles, shapes, curves, patterns) can be observed, and label these with QR codes that can be scanned by students. Once scanned, the QR codes point students to websites or videos explaining the concept that can be observed, introducing new mathematical concepts in a physical way.
    • Hands On Geometry – use the Scratch programming environment to ask students to draw shapes (e.g. square, pentagon). Ask students to generalise their work into a program that asks users how many sides a shape should have, and then draws the shape. This helps take knowledge of specific shapes, and draws out general knowledge that connects a range shapes.
    • Math Memes – mathematicians are funny people, and the Internet is full of funny maths jokes that can be used to introduce subjects, or sow confusion and debate (example 1, example 2, example 3)
    • Write Your Own Textbook – rather than just following a textbook, have students create amd publish their own, with examples, questions and answers. Lay it out with desktop publishing software (e.g. Scribus, iBooks Author) and share it online.
    • Where In The World – find a picture of somewhere in your county/state/district that is distinct, but unknown to students. Ask them to use Google Maps, and visual clues from the image to triangulate and discover the location of the image. See Where In Hong Kong for an example of this process.
  • Science
    • Wikipedia Discussion – ask students to find a contentious scientific topic (e.g. evolution), and look at its page on Wikipedia. Look at the Talk page associated article to see some of the discussion and debate that goes on behind the scenes in presenting this idea. Some pages are protected? Why? How does scientific knowledge evolve over time?
    • Experiment Curator – create a website using a free online tool (e.g. WordPress, Wix, Weebly) to set up a site where students share and curate information on scientific experiments. This site can cross year groups and classes. Experiments can be organised by complexity, area of science, experimental approach, etc. This forces students to look at experiments from a broader point of view. Share the website online, invite other schools to participate.
    • YouTube Channel – extending on the experiment curation idea above, have students film experiments, adding subtitle instructions, and student dialogue explaining what is happening. Create a YouTube channel of the collected experiments. This encourages students to more deeply understand what they are doing, so that they can explain it back to others.
    • Arduino Electronics – use an Arduino board and sensor kit to take measurements of the environment, and store the data for further analysis. Get to know local weather and climate, and compare it to reading from other sources and other locations.
  • Humanities
    • Global Issues Board Game – choose a global issue (e.g. climate change), and ask students to produce a board game to simulate the issue, allowing others to learn about it through play. Use Creative Commons media and free iconography to produce something polished and legally saleable. Create some sets, and sell them to the community and other schools. Use money raised to fund change via micro finance (see below). As an example of a game made in this way, look at Producers & Consumers.
    • Micro Finance – taking a small amount of money, ask students to use micro finance (e.g. via Kiva) to fund small scale change in developing countries. Use a collaborative spreadsheet (e.g. Google Sheets) to track loans, repayments and the changes facilitated. Discuss whether micro finance is a sustainable, feasible alternative to humanitarian aid.
    • Wikipedia Editing – find a Wikipedia entry on a relevant topic (e.g. erosion), read it, and see if there are any ways it can be improved or contributed to (e.g. fixing errors, improving text, adding sources, taking and uploading images).
    • Current Affairs Feed – use a feed aggregator or automated online news paper (e.g. Paperli) to create a school feed detailing current affairs and interest news. Share it with students and staff for use across school.
    • Local-Global Sharing – using Twitter or the web, find another classroom, somewhere else in the world, that you can connect to. Have students on both sides prepare ideas and information to share about their local geography, history, culture. Then schedule a video call (e.g. Skype, Hangouts) for students to both share their own local knowledge, and learn about someone else’s area.
    • Public Domain Historical Archive – copyright is limited by time, and old media eventually becomes part of the public domain, free for anyone to use. Ask students to choose a historical topic, and mine the internet for public domain archive material around this topic. Build a website using a free online tool (e.g. WordPress, Wix, Weebly), to bring together a range of such topics, for use by other schools or the local community.
    • Data Exploration – the World Bank, WHO and other organisations publish large data sets, ripe for authentic learning. Often these are hard to use, due to their size and structure. Make this data accessible and explorable to students with Google’s Public Data Explorer. Ask students to spot patterns in the world, and then research and unpack these patterns to extract lessons about the world.
  • Visual & Performing Arts
    • Meme Studies – unknown to most adults, our students are well versed in Internet memes, which shape and define most of their popular culture. The more visual of these memes provide rich and relevant ground for artistic analysis. Are these works art? Where do they come from? What influences them? How do they spread? How is one piece used to derive another (e.g. this lead to this which lead to this which lead to this)?
    • Collaborative Play Writing – using an online survey tool (e.g. Google Forms, Survey Monkey) ask members of your community to create characters for a play. Ask students to take this diverse cast, and build a narrative around it.
    • Automated Set Design – using Arduino, cardboard and tape, have students produce a model set with automated lights, curtains, sensor-driven cues, etc.
    • Classroom Design – introduce students to contemporary space design (e.g. Make Space), and ask them to use a design tool (e.g. Homestyler, Sketchup) to redesign their current learning space to their liking. Use a 3D printer (if you have one or can access one) to print a model. Have students present to school administrators to obtain funds to put their ideas into action.
    • Premature Ageing – use graphic design and aging software to have students consider their future selves, and what they might grow to become. For an example see Half-Old Portrait.
  • Physical Education
    • Fitness Data – use fitness trackers (e.g. FitBit, Polar) to help students gather data about themselves and the way they live. Bring this real data into lessons to ask students to consider their lifestyle, their fitness aims, and how they might develop.
    • Video Analysis – use ubiquitous cameras (phones, laptops, tablets) to have students capture athletic performance (e.g. long jump). Use video editing tools (e.g. WeVideo) to compare an equivalent professional athletic action with that of your students. Use this video to help students plan how to improve their own performance.
  • Languages
    • Online CollaborationDoulingo allows students to learn languages, whilst contributing to the massive online effort of translating web-based content. This means that students can make the web better, and improve their language skills, at the same time, for free.
    • Collaborative Subtitling – challenge your students to translate a video from one language to another, working collaboratively online (e.g. Amara).
    • International Connections – use Skype’s Classroom connectivity to have your students connect with language learners in other countries to exchange conversation time and tips.
  • Miscellaneous
    • Digital Scavenger Hunt – encourage students to hone their digital skills, problem solving and team work, using an online scavenger hunt, like this one.
    • Virtual Travel – use Google Tour Builder to create a virtual tour of  place you want students to experience, highlighting features and ideas relevant to your subject or topic as you go.
    • Consultancy – find a non-profit or company with a need, and offer your students to help them meet it. For example, in teaching cookery, it could be possible to help a company cater an event. Alternatively, students could offer their ICT skills to help solve computer-related problems.

Yes, this is hard work. Yes, it requires new skills. But, yes, students will engage and be enthused in new ways.

Once you start thinking in these terms, you can start coming up with your own, richer integrations. Alternatively search for “amazing classroom technology integration” in Google, or get onto Twitter and start building a community of practitioners to learn from. There is a whole world of sharing educators out there, into which we can tap.

Credit: butterfly thumbnail image by Benny Mazur on Wikimedia Commons shared under CC BY.