Wednesday, July 6, 2011

School computers should have browsers other than Internet Explorer

"At this point, all the web browsers pretty much work the same way."

That's what I was told in 2008, when I was trying to sell the idea that organizations should have more than just Internet Explorer on their standard desktop image. I didn't bother pushing the point -- my elevator pitch wasn't prepared for beliefs that far from the truth.

Soon after that, Chrome was released and literally revolutionized the web browser landscape. If you haven't ever read it, you seriously need to sit down and go through the entire Google Chrome comicbook, so you can appreciate what a huge change it represented. Almost three years later, Internet Explorer is just beginning to catch up to what Chrome was doing in Fall of 2008!


What's wrong with Internet Explorer?

IE's web standards support is years behind all other major web browsers. This doesn't just mean that your teachers won't see shadows and design elements (although that's true, too). I'm talking about core, fundamental features of the web that are supported in current versions of Chrome and Firefox that aren't yet supported in IE 9 or even in the current previews of IE 10. (References: charts comparing many browser versions at once, or compare two specific browser versions in detail)

IE is slower than other browsers. If you give teachers the option of a faster browser, you could save money by stretching the life of your hardware. (Reference: typical browser test results) Additionally, because IE loads pages slower, you have to compensate by lowering the quality of those pages, and the quality of the tools you offer to teachers.

If you only have IE, then IE problems are always show-stoppers. Teachers can't easily work around web tool problems that only affect IE because they don't have other browsers installed.

Those are solid reasons on their own, but they're all based on the current version, IE9. If your computers use Windows XP, you can't even install IE9, it only supports Windows 7! These problems, then, are all multiplied because you are literally using a browser (IE8) that was behind the times when it was released over two years ago.


If you have to decide on one additional web browser (and you don't), you should offer Chrome.

Firefox is more commonly known, but Chrome really is the leader. It is faster and more secure/stable. Chrome already has 20% market share and is on track to have more users than IE or Firefox in less than 2 years. (Reference: Pingdom blogs about Google Chrome)

On a practical note, Chrome also seems to have stronger support for group management than Firefox, although there are some Firefox options out there.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Should podcasting and Second Life be priorities for schools?

When I come across interesting-sounding videos that are too long to sit and watch, I usually play them in a corner of my screen while I do something else. I can usually glean the main ideas without losing an hour of my day.

I was playing just such a video of a big deal 2011 TCEA Conference Featured Presenter, when I stumbled on a realization about how far education technology culture is from real world technology culture. I tested the thought in Google Trends, and what I saw blew me away. (Google Trends lets you compare the number of Google searches for up to five different phrases, and shows the data in nifty charts.)

First, check out this Google Trends chart for the terms [podcast] and [second life]:

No big surprises. Second Life exploded at the beginning of 2007, and most people quickly lost interest. Podcasting grew organically until Apple officially added it as a feature in iTunes in June 2005 (says wikipedia), and leveled off by the end of that year.

I still hear about podcasts all the time in education technology as a really cool new thing that schools and teachers can really go for. And, in the TCEA video I watched that spawned this whole post, a featured presenter sounded really gung-ho about Second Life. That's at one of the biggest education technology conferences...ever, with thousands of attendees. So keep in mind, these two tools are still being pitched in the world of education technology.

Now, look at what happens when we add [myspace] and [twitter]:

Holy smokes. You can't even see the lines for Second Life and Podcast. They're basically inconsequential in comparison! 

(And, if I can digress for a moment, you probably have a good understanding of how big Twitter is right now, right? To put things in perspective, look at this chart and realize that, at it's peak, MySpace was searched for over twice as often as Twitter is now. You can really start to realize why MySpace was such a big deal, and why it freaked out so many adults and educators. It took over a big part of online student culture before anyone knew what had happened.)

(Digression #2: "Podcast" is also a no-show in the Wikipedia article for iPod, which is sad, but indicative of the real world impact of podcasts.)

Now, take a look at all of the above...compared with searches for [facebook]:


MySpace is gone. Twitter is hanging in down there. Podcasts and Second Life didn't even show up to the game.

Now, look. I'm not saying podcasts don't have their place. I'm not saying that a skilled teacher couldn't get some mileage out of Second Life. But the big picture is that schools need to think pretty hard about turning their backs on Facebook. When you ignore something as big as Facebook, or advocate strongly for something as inconsequential as Second Life or podcasts, you're mapping out a very challenging road for yourself.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Google+ is the next generation of social networking, thanks to +Circles

It was a magical moment when I saw the Google+ announcement. Immediately, it was obvious that Google+ is on a different scale of magnitude than Buzz, Wave, or Connect. Those were small potatoes, side projects that missed the big picture.

This is Chrome big. Maybe bigger. This might be Gmail big.



Social networking has been stagnant for several years. Since the advent of Twitter, there have been no new major players to speak of. Facebook is relying heavily on network effects -- people join Facebook and stay active because that's where everyone is, not because the features are fresh and useful.

The elephant in the room with social networking is that Twitter, Facebook, and pretty much everything else are built wrong for how we actually interact with each other. As everyone joined Facebook, we've ended up with "friends" representing many aspects of our lives: schools, neighborhoods, jobs, hobbies, family members. And, even though we act a little bit differently with each of these people in real life, on Facebook, we have to present the same face to everyone we know. People don't cringe because they don't want anyone to see a picture of them with an empty bottle of wine; they cringe because Facebook shows that picture to everyone.


Google+ has several potential killer apps, like nifty video chat and Instant Upload to a private album. The most important bit, though, is +Circles. Call it the killer glue that will hold everything together. The idea of +Circles is that the entire social network is built, ground-up, to let you manage your "friend" connections in groups that make sense. So, you can tell all your close friends about your night on the town and talk with your family about the reunion without cross-pollinating. This is exactly what we do in real life, and it's the part of Google+ that gives it the most potential.

Google+ is "post-Facebook". It's the next evolution of social networking.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Are the "Like" button's benefits worth the privacy concerns?

I've been hesitant to put the Facebook "Like" button on our school district website, because it could violate your privacy:

  • Anytime your web browser tries to download a file from a server, it sends some information about itself
  • Anytime you visit a page with a "Like" button, your web browser tries to download a file from Facebook's server.
  • Therefore, Facebook knows every time you visit a page with a Like button on it.

If I put a "Like" button on one of our webpages, Facebook will know that you have visited the page, even if you don't click the button. Whether you're logged in to Facebook or not, the only way to block it is to make some atypical changes to your computer/web browser's default settings.

Is that enough of a reason to not use the "Like" button?


Protecting user privacy used to be an ideological hill that I would die on, but privacy has changed a lot in the past few years.

This kind of data-mining capability is now ubiquitous. Most social media "share" buttons (including Google's fancy new "+1") work the same way. All sites using Google Analytics count their hits by telling your computer to ping Google on every webpage. Pretty much all online advertisements you see have the same capability. The ubiquity has advantages -- you can hide in a sea of consumers, watchdog groups exist and keep things from getting out of hand -- but nothing's ever OK just because everyone else is doing it.

We are now much more comfortable with sharing. 600 million Facebook users. 156 million public blogs. 190 million Tweets each day. Ten years ago, we valued online privacy mainly because we didn't know what would happen if we didn't. In 2011, we've shared huge chunks of our lives and have a much better idea of where the lines are drawn...and they're drawn much more loosely than we thought.

"Like"-ing one of our news stories spreads the word that our schools are doing good things. That's the piece I can't ignore. It's too easy for people outside of education to assume that schools have gone downhill since they left, when the reality is that education is constantly changing for the better. Our community needs to be reminded just how many success stories happen here every day. If we can use "Like" buttons to keep the true stories of our teachers' success in front of false rumors about inefficiency, that's a powerful point that can't be overlooked.


I think it might be worth it now, but I don't feel right making that call myself. I want to know if the "Like" button is what our users want. I'm going to start explaining the situation and asking them, and see what their verdict is. If they know the privacy risks and still think it's OK, then there's not much reason to keep leaving those benefits on the table.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Usability failures created the digital native/immigrant divide

I've been working on an idea for a while now, that today's "digital immigrants" are really just badly-burned early adopters from the 80's.


"Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" is a 2001 article by Marc Prensky that tried to explain part of the awkward relationship between schools and computers. The main idea is that the K-12 students of the time (born 1984~1996) had always known a world with tons of personal technology. They had computers at home, learned to use them at a young age, and got increasingly comfortable with using them as they grew older. Those are the natives.

The immigrants, then are everyone else. Anyone who grew up without being surrounded by computers sees them as a new thing to be learned. The fast-moving cultural shifts probably passed them by, unless they're pretty techie.

There was a fair amount of discussion about the idea online in the mid-to-late-zeros, as teacher blogs exploded in popularity. Most of the talk was pointing out the exceptions: it's not impossible to find students who can't cut/paste and teachers who write PHP from scratch. As a whole, I'd say bloggers know not to treat it as a hard rule, but begrudgingly admit that native/immigrant is a rather appealing concept that we can't help but keep bringing up.


My spin, then, is that native/immigrant gives a bad rap to people who actually deserve to be recognized as the early adopters. "Digital immigrants" born before 1980 were there when PCs were being rolled out to schools and businesses in droves. They were gradually introduced to computers, they had training, and they were assigned tasks, which they accomplished. They did it before anyone else, before it was cool, and they deserve recognition for that.

The problem is that early computers were sometimes horrible to use; a small error could easily cause a catastrophic, unrecoverable failure. It was harder to make backups, because there weren't hard drives, and you couldn't upload to the cloud/network drive or email yourself a copy. So, when you saved over your only copy of your report, or kicked the powerstrip under your desk, your work was gone. If you dropped or broke a piece of equipment, the replacement cost was high. Even as things advanced, it was still possible for one simple mistake to infect your computer with a virus that would cause any kind of problems it wanted.

Young digital natives, on the other hand, benefit from years of usability and technology improvements: space is plentiful, backing up files is easy and cheap. Parts are cheap and standardized. Firewalls, email virus scanners, and countless built-in protections in web browsers do a lot to mitigate viruses and worms. Google Docs saves your work every few seconds -- you'll never lose a report when the lightning takes out your power. (If you're connected via cell network, you might even be able to keep working.)

First impressions are everything. Many digital immigrants never got comfortable with computers because they couldn't see past the risks associated with them. They kept their distance, but that kept them from appreciating that computers have become much safer and easier to use.


Now, when I'm helping a textbook "digital immigrant" setup a website, I always focus on building the idea that it's safe. They won't delete everything in a way that we can't undo it; they won't ruin someone else's website. I set them loose to experiment and check back with them later. So far, it feels like it's helping people take a big step past the mental barrier that's kept them from becoming a "native".

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Being a good gatekeeper

One day, I came home and found that my carport had been mangled by someone who wasn't used to driving a tall U-Haul. My apartment complex removed the debris and put out some sad-looking cones:

Hail season was just about to start, and I had been hoping to keep my car dent-free for another year. When I asked for a different space to park in until the carport was fixed, I was outright denied and told to park in the half-covered space. I had lived in that building for months, so I knew there were many covered spaces that no one ever parked in. One person decided they were going to stand between me and a covered parking space.


In a school district, fixing a problem usually boils down to one person who has total power to make a difference, whether that means solving the problem themselves or escalating to their boss. It is a customer service disaster when the gatekeeper refuses to help. An employee who blindly follows processes while people who depend on him suffer is like a saboteur, destroying your school's reputation from the inside. There really isn't any great damage control method for when parents (or other employees!) are rightfully upset about a bad situation that was obviously solvable.

You have to prevent upset people by being a good gatekeeper. Respect each person enough to consider their situation as unique. Look beyond the process and align your goals with their goals, so that you're working with them against the constraints of the situation.

It's awkward to give personal examples, because being a good gatekeeper usually means you're creatively bending the rules, even though it's for good reason. Instead, I'll point you to a spectactular set of stories on Reddit. All of them are about people who went out of their way to fix a problem that only they could fix. Often, they put their jobs at risk, even though every story ends with the customer becoming a life-long fan of their employer. Read these, and realize that every phone call or email you answer is an opportunity to win a life-long fan.


As I began to explain that it was hail season and that half a carport wouldn't protect my car very well, another person who worked in the apartment office ran out from a back room, grabbed the binder containing their parking records, and interrupted us while smiling. "We've got lots of open spots! The closest open covered space to you is... #92. You can park there until we fix the carport, and I'll mark it here so we don't try to give it to someone else."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The end of the school district social media honeymoon

There was a disturbance in the force on Monday.

The Texas school district that has been leading the way in online communication and social media closed all of their Facebook pages. They were the role model for many districts' online presence, and their Facebook page "Rules of Engagement" were copied far and wide. They were among the first and probably the best.

Having an official school district or school Facebook page has always been a strategy with a little extra handful of risk. Anyone can post any comment they want, and the most you can do is check frequently, delete inappropriate comments, and ban users. In this case, it sounds like a persistent few ruined the benefits for everyone. I didn't see the problem posts myself, but I certainly believe it could happen.

But then, I still can't wrap my mind around it. It feels so abrupt. I don't want to believe that my social media superheroes encountered a problem that they couldn't solve, because that forces me to admit that it could happen on the Facebook pages I work on.


I haven't seen anyone say it yet, but I'm just going to go for it: Facebook is the best way for school districts to communicate with the community en masse. You have an attentive, targeted audience who are addicted to sharing your announcements with everyone they know (most of whom live in your attendance zones). Even better, they are simultaneously giving you detailed feedback that you can use to improve your communication strategy. If you communicate well, you get more fans and interaction, which then trains you on how to communicate well. Everything about Facebook encourages you to be a better communicator. (And it's free!)

We're only taking our first steps, and I can't imagine taking it away. I know in my head that Facebook isn't the center of our communications strategy; it's not even a tent pole or a chair leg. In my gut, though, I feel like if it went away there isn't something else that can take its place.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Do people really doubt the value of Facebook pages for schools?

An article that was posted on Mashable yesterday sounds like it's the exact information I've been looking for: "How Schools Can Use Facebook to Build an Online Community". Unfortunately, it's mostly a beginner's guide to creating a school's Facebook page.

The comments are interesting, though, since so many of them are opposed to schools having Facebook pages.

I think many people oppose Facebook for schools because they haven't realized that schools have always needed to communicate with their community -- to answer questions, to address rumors, to announce news, and to listen. It's more efficient to handle that communication asynchronously and publicly on a free medium (Facebook) instead of synchronously (on the phone or in-person), one on one (email), or on a pay medium (sending notes home). Those are real savings that can be put directly back towards the classroom. The additional accountability of parents being able to publicly ask hard questions when necessary is just icing on the cake.

Some people seem concerned about student data, but we already have FERPA laws in place to protect student data. All schools have local procedures to make sure those laws are followed. This seems like a thoroughly-settled issue to me, but I can see how they might not know that.

And I guess that's the key -- they just don't know what they're talking about. They don't know that parental support and involvement is a bigger determining factor in educational success than anything else. Teacher quality, curriculum, etc -- nothing beats parent involvement. Schools can use Facebook to cheaply encourage parental involvement, and that's a serious win. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Think schools, not district

About once a month, the person in charge of our district's visual identity gets a request for one or more school logos. Sometimes, the PTA wants to use the logo on a newsletter or printed piece. Other times, it's a company looking to make t-shirts or something else they can sell to students. We get enough requests like this that our graphic designer has the process down to a science: figure out if it's reasonable, make sure the principal is aware and approves, then figure out what computer file format will work best.

The thing is, I can't remember a time when someone requested the school district's logo.

That's the norm, though. There are tons of businesses that "adopt" the schools near their brick-and-mortar locations, but many fewer reach out to help the entire district. When we post on Facebook about individual schools, we get excited replies from parents, but district-wide stories just get "likes" and comments that read like form letters.

People don't connect with school districts; they connect with schools. We care about the school we go to, but it's hard to care about the district because it's not familiar and it involves so many unknowns. Parents haven't interacted with the district office (or even those other schools) every day for years, the way they did when their kids went to the neighborhood school. Worse still, bad news travels faster than good, so sometimes that's all that parents have heard about the district.

District-community connections do exist, though, and it's not impossible to strengthen them. We post tons of news from all our schools, for example, so people get the idea that there are always good things happening at every school. The events that logistically have to happen at the district-level help bridge some of the gaps. And, some things are just easier to go ahead and take care of at the district level.

...but don't spend all your time working on the district website. Take a step back from rigid district-wide templates and let schools develop their own styles and personalities. Even better, look at how the schools work with their community now, and help them build their websites around those ideas. Definitely embrace their cultural touchstones; post pictures of beloved long-time staff members and play up their traditions.

If you can redirect resources toward helping schools strengthen their own community connections, you'll get a lot more bang for your buck. When your district needs support, you'll still be able to make that appeal to the community, but you'll do it through the schools. People will line up to help the district when the teachers they've known for years point out that their own neighborhood school will see the benefit.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Take on complexity so teachers don't have to

For the first few years at my job, after I had learned the ropes, I didn't make any major changes to the status quo: Teachers were expected to do all editing on their classroom websites. We could talk them through it on the phone, but we wanted them to do all the actual button-pushing themselves. The idea seemed to be that the teachers would gradually learn how to do all these neat, complex web editing techniques.

I started to notice that some teachers would ask me the same question about once a year. Something like "how do I change the title of one of my web pages?" At first, I thought that maybe they just weren't techno-savvy, but that didn't sit well for long. I didn't like the idea of noticing this pattern of once-a-year calls, calling it an unsolvable problem, and ignoring the situation altogether.

At around the same time, I started to feel really weird about teachers calling me during their conference time to fix little bits of their website. I mean, they could call at any time, but that's the only time they realistically had in their day for talking with me on the phone. I had learned from the Fed Up With Lunch blog that each minute a teacher has with no students in their room is infinitely precious planning, decompressing, eating, and restrooming time.

Eventually, I realized that I could split the changes that teachers made on their website into two categories:

  • easy changes teachers did often enough to learn
  • trickier changes that teachers did not do often enough to learn
And then, I took a really radical step, never before attempted in any school district ever. I lightened the load of teachers.  I started to do the second category of changes for them.

It didn't make sense for teachers to make the changes in the second category. For example, it wasn't vitally important that each and every teacher see how to change the name of their webpages, because most of them only ever do it once. It also felt really, really right to let teachers report the problem, get back to their work, and read my "Problem Solved!" email at their own convenience.

The cost, though, was more effort from me. I had to spend more time thinking about the solutions, looking at teachers' websites, and guessing at the best one. It took more of my time to write the email back, because I also included instructions of what I had done, in case they wanted to know.

Was it worth my extra effort? Gerry McGovern absolutely nailed this topic a few weeks ago:
"The Web dictates that you put the customer first. That means taking on more complexity yourself." from The price of doing business on the web (March 14, 2011)
That's the whole point, isn't it? My job is to find the situations where a little extra effort on my part will let teachers do more of the real work: education.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A New Hope for Home Internet

Google is in the business of being a game-changer. When they rolled out Gmail with 1GB of space for each person, Yahoo! Mail was offering a paltry 4MB.  It took Yahoo over a year to catch up; Hotmail needed 2 and a half years.

(Why does Google offer so many free Internet tools? If Google makes the Internet better, people use the Internet more often, and Google's superior tools will be perfectly positioned to make money by showing them ads.)

Now, Google is experimenting with another potentially game-changing way to increase Internet use: better home Internet service. If you're not a heavy user, you might not think home Internet service is that bad. However, as we increasingly turn to streaming video instead of cable or satellite, companies like Comcast and AT&T are dragging their heels instead of moving with us, and early adopters are finding that the companies just don't seem willing to change. The problems that heavy users face today will be your problems tomorrow...

...unless Google's experiment works. It sure seems like all the right pieces are in place: Internet Service Providers have been coasting for years and increasing prices without any significant improvement to services. Google already has a lot of network expertise, both from leasing their own fiber lines all over the world and from smaller experiments with providing super-fast Internet to their own employees. And honestly, Google's too smart to undertake a project this big without a pretty solid plan in place.

So what happens now? We watch, and we cheer from the sidelines. If Google is able to successfully provide super-fast Internet access in Kansas City, at a cost equal to (or possibly much lower) than the competition's relatively slow broadband, we can look forward to similar improvements in most cities and neighborhoods across the US. If Comcast and AT&T can't keep up with Google, someone else will.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Are you doing technology right? The Ten-Second Test

The school technology people I talk with spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out how to do edutech right. Should we have an official Facebook presence? Twitter? Should we go open source? IWBs? 1:1 devices for students? Since you can make an argument for or against any of these, none of them by themselves can really determine whether you're meeting student and teacher technology needs.

Then one day...

I was talking with a kindergarten teacher, and we came up with something that all schools should do, but that no school seems to make a priority. Something that seemed unquestionably useful and simple to implement, yet was ridiculously rare in practice.

So I present to you, the ultimate ten-second test of whether your school is addressing teachers' and students' technology needs:

Do your computers have:
  1. a block letter font that looks exactly how you want kindergartners to write?
  2. a cursive font that looks exactly how you want students to learn cursive?
  3. appropriate fonts/support for foreign languages taught in your schools?

That's it. Did you pass?

When my friend and I were talking, she pointed out that she tends to use Comic Sans because it has a single-story "a" (and an article from the BBC last October mentions that Comic Sans might just have a legitimate place in elementary schools) but she said that Comic Sans isn't exactly correct; none of her fonts are.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Passion of the Support Staff

We know that teachers have to be passionate. The pay is low, the work load is great, the responsibility is high. Read any honest teacher's blog and you'll find stories of being treated like a second-class citizen. There are people who understand teachers (warning: some profanity), but teachers still have to have passion to survive amongst the people who don't understand.

But teachers aren't the only ones.

I couldn't be the member of a school district's support staff if I didn't have passion. I believe in the power of education. It's not just baby-sitting, and it's not even just society's best chance to break the cycle of poverty; it's a gift that all children deserve every year.

That's why I work hard.  I lighten the load on teachers. Your webpage is broken? I'm going to do the legwork to solve that problem, you go teach, and I'll email you when I'm done so you can call me because if I call you it would interrupt your class.  I spread the word about every success, so teachers and students can value themselves. Three kids in kindergarten recited the alphabet backwards? There's a 12th grader who always holds the door open? Send me a picture, it's going on the website. I make everyday events into magical experiences. You forgot your camera? Let me take four special pictures of you on stage with your kid and his award and I email the best one to the parents, after I remove the red eye and fix the colors, and in the email I tell them that their kid did great and that they should be proud and that parent involvement makes the difference.

I'm passionate about supporting education, and I want to infuse all my work with that passion.

And sometimes that passion has to carry me. When I'm meeting my friend's friends and they have PhD's or corporate salaries and I say I do web work for a school district....and their eyes say "so not only can you not do, you can't teach either?"

Or when the state cuts the budget and there are going to be layoffs and the only thing that every comment on every online news story seems to agree on is "we have to protect the teachers, and we have to protect my money from taxes, so they should fire all the support staff!" (Even though the reality is that "Texas could fire ... all 329,574 non-teacher jobs - and still not save the $11.6 billion in public education cuts...")

That's when my passion for education has to carry me.