ADE: Surface and Depth

ADE trophy
The Apple Distinguished Educators Institute I attended in Cork last week was, unsurprisingly, a slick operation. We were repeatedly wowed by the calibre of presenters flown in to showcase their genius and to work with us as we immersed ourselves in the process of authoring content.

Sarah Herrlinger’s talk on accessible content design struck a chord and reminded me of the promise I made to myself (via my interactions with @irishdeafkids) to think about the needs of all learners when creating content for this website and elsewhere.

Bill Frakes’ stunningly beautiful photographs unearthed a previously hidden desire in me to really explore the art of creating photos and to the delight of my husband John, I’ve been playing around with our newly purchased Nikon camera a lot since I got home. Bill Frakes also took a photo of every ADE at the event and what girl’s gonna turn down the opportunity to have her image snapped by a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer?


Nancy Duarte’s incredibly engaging talk on the importance of clear design for educational content resonated the most for me and reassured me that there is still a place in education for the well-designed lecture.

But when I scratch beneath the surface of the week there were other, more significant things I learnt.

First of all, the future of learning is not exclusively or even predominantly online. Content consumption has exploded in recent years but it undoubtedly has limitations, particularly for recovering-technophobes like me who, given a choice, choose human over machine every time. No matter how many incredible resources were sent my way on the iTunesU ADE course, they paled to insignificance beside the power of collaborating in person with kindred spirits. The lifelong friendships I take away from the week with me will be the creative juice I need to keep at it, even when the mountain feels too high to climb. Yes, I’ll explore the content as time allows but it was building content in the presence of crazily creative people that was simply wow and perhaps this is what gives Apple their edge in education, because content creation is such a key element of their ecosystem. All of this cemented for me what I already knew in my heart: that the human element of learning is vital. So blended learning as the future? Hell yeah! But massive MOOCs? I’ve not convinced.

Secondly, no matter how much money you have, pupil-teacher ratio matters. There were many occasions during the week where my learning could have been accelerated if only I had access to the experts in my moments of need. We DID have access to the experts but there were 160 of us all clamouring for their attention! Luckily my PLN were incredibly patient. The time I spent with them, along with the 10 minutes I spent with the Duarte team and the half hour Ryan L’Esperance kindly gave me, reminded me that the teacher may move from sage on the stage to guide on the side, but nothing is superior to individualised instruction. No country has been able to afford it since the ancient Greeks, but it works, no question.

The Lennon Bus tour blew my mind with the extreme challenge based learning they implement on a daily basis but it also brought me full circle once again to the issue of pupil-teacher ratio. I hope to lure them to my school sometime soon but the process of selecting only 10-12 pupils from a school of 500, all of whom would undoubtedly benefit from participation, will be seriously tough. I know it’s better to give some of them the experience rather than none but it does make me sad that they can’t all experience it. I guess it was just another timely reminder that CBL is best implemented with perhaps one expert to every 5 learners. The Lennon Bus crew understand that completely which is why they limit the number of participants to preserve the integrity and value of the learning experience. But in an Ireland where classes are bursting at the seams from cutbacks and austerity, effective CBL is only going to happen if, as a teacher, I can somehow draw on the expertise my learners already have and if some of my students are happy to take on the role of teacher rather than learner within the group projects we do.

Thirdly, the week confirmed a complex reality that bitter experience has already taught me: learning will not automatically happen simply because you put people into groups. I clicked instantly with @Andyisatwork @Krowdrah @cajcarter @Lannoy29 and @Mrpielee and serious kudos goes to @rebeccastockley for helping us to find each other. Basically she got us to write down some key words on our iPads which represented our passions and we then wandered a room full of 160 odd people holding up our signs and searching for kindred spirits. I know I found mine but speaking informally to other ADE’s not everyone was as fortunate or successful. The quality of my learning and the speed with which I got to grips with my project was a direct result of working in PLN 6: Cinetivity, to the extent that one day I looked around, demanded out loud where all the other groups had gone, at which point we all looked up and realised that everyone else had gone to lunch. I had lost myself so completely in our group dynamic of just getting shit done that eating seemed like an unwelcome distraction from the important business at hand. We dragged ourselves away from our projects once our stomachs started complaining loudly but I could work happily with those guys for weeks on end. The ideas fizzing and bubbling in the air were too delicious to resist.

My favourite session from the whole week involved no tech at all. We laid down our weapons of choice – iPads and iPhones and iMacs – and played improv games in a group of about 40 people down in the golf lodge. I can’t remember when I last laughed so much but I do know that first day back to school my students will get the direct benefit of that session spent with Rebecca Stockley. And being able to access her content via the ADE iTunes course will really help in a few weeks time when the feeling remains but the details are fuzzy in my brain. That is the true beauty of the technology, the way it allows us to re-connect with knowledge whose seed has been planted in our minds but which needs care and attention if it is ever to grow.

I learnt a lot last week at the ADE institute but if the beautiful glass momento pictured above somehow gets smashed I’ll be sad, sure, but not devastated. Because the week wasn’t about a fancy trophy and a slick photo. It was about bringing together a bunch of educators with vision and passion and skill and for that I will always be grateful.

So I suppose what I’m really trying to say is that depth is always more complex, and for me, more interesting than surface.

Take for example this photo. The extreme lighting employed flattens my features, smoothes out my crows feet, evens out my skin tone. I look good but I don’t quite look like myself.
2013 ADE Europe InstituteO'Connor, Evelyn
Now compare it to this photo, taken by my beloved John in a moment when I’m completely at ease and thus genuinely smiling.
Studio CCR

Yes you can see my chubby cheeks and the lines around my eyes. There are shiny bits which make my skin look a little oily and my hair is shoved behind my ears. But it’s me. It’s undoubtedly me. And maybe that depth is ultimately more appealing than flattened out surface.

The surface appeal of tech in education is undeniable. The idea that it could instantly transform education, could make it more engaging, more accessible, more of-the-era is tempting in the extreme.

But the deeper truth I also realised this week is that learning from people, with machines, is the most powerful learning there is. Tech in education is the way forward. I truly, madly, deeply believe this. The human element remains central; the tech becomes invisible; and the marriage of the two is just pure magic.

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