An afternoon with the bean sprouts at Lauderdale School!

edmonton public schools foundationA few months ago, Sandra Woitas found me at an event we were both attending and asked if I’d be interested in helping with a video the Edmonton Public Schools Foundation was working on. I said sure, and asked what it entailed. Teaching kindergarten for an afternoon, was her response. I started to explain that I’m really not the best person for the job and that there must be someone else, but Sandra was having none of it. I was going to teach kindergarten!

We found a time that worked, and in mid-April I was set to spend an afternoon with the kindergarten class at Lauderdale School. “This is really going to happen,” I thought, and that was both exciting and scary! I called my Mom, a former preschool teacher and now an SLPA, to get her advice. She was encouraging as mothers tend to be, and advised me to have fun with the experience. A few days before I was scheduled to make my teaching debut, Terry Odegard, the Kindergarten Teacher at Lauderdale, sent me the lesson plan. We would be doing attendance, having a movement break, talking about the calendar (what date is it), playing at centres, taking a break for recess, and then reading a story. It would be a full afternoon with the bean sprouts as Sandra likes to call them!

Finally the day arrived. The feeling I had as I drove to Lauderdale School was not unlike that feeling you get when you’re about to write an exam and you know that you haven’t studied enough and you’re probably not going to do very well. What if the kids didn’t like me? What if I did something horribly wrong and ruined a child for life?! These are the irrational questions I considered.

Sandra met me at the school with coffee, which was really thoughtful and helped put me at ease. I met some of the other teachers in the staff room and then got setup in the classroom while the kids were outside. The camera guys had already done this a few times, so it was business-as-usual for them. I took a few minutes to familiarize myself with the classroom, and then the kids started filing back inside and I greeted them at the door. No turning back now!

The rest of the afternoon was a lot of fun. As you might expect, my fears were completely unwarranted. I couldn’t have messed up even if I wanted to – the kids know the schedule and were quick to point out what we should be doing next. I only used the noise rattle a few times – I was instructed to shake it as a quiet signal when I needed everyone to pay attention. During centres I looked after the painting table, and because the kids had been to the Valley Zoo recently and met the seals who painted with a paint brush in their mouths, we did that too. Hands behind your back and hold the paint brush in your teeth! That was fun, and yes paint got everywhere. During recess, I stayed inside to do a quick interview with the camera crew. Lots of people are uneasy about being on camera, but that seemed like the easiest part of the afternoon to me! The kids came back in from recess, I read a story with them, and then I was on my way. The afternoon really flew by.

Here’s the video that was produced (you can see me in action toward the end):

I ended up having a lot of fun that afternoon, and I definitely came away with much greater respect for kindergarten teachers and the important role that they play in a child’s development and growth. I’m certain I don’t have the patience to do what they do every day! I’m also thankful for the Edmonton Public Schools Foundation and the work that it does.

The Foundation was launched February 10, 2010, for two main purposes: to spread the word about the great things happening in the public education system and to support Edmonton Public Schools across Edmonton. We do this by offering opportunities for improved learning through financial, in-kind and human resource contributions.

Full-Day Kindergarten is one of the programs they support. The provincial government funds half-day kindergarten, but research tells us that children who attend full-day kindergarten are better equipped for success in future grades. We had a lot of discussion about that on EPCOR’s Community Essentials Council recently, but ultimately we decided to support the Full-Day Kindergarten program at Mee-Yah-Noh School (as we did in 2011).

Thanks again to Sandra, Terry, and everyone else at Lauderdale and EPSF for the opportunity!

You can learn more about the Edmonton Public Schools Foundation here. If you’d like to make a donation or otherwise get involved, you can do that here.

What’s new at Grant MacEwan University?

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to attend the MacEwan President’s Reception held at the Robbins Health Learning Centre. Hosted by retiring president Dr. Paul Byrne, the event was an opportunity for the roughly 50 people in attendance to get an update on what the university has been up to. One of the things that Dr. Byrne was very excited to talk about was MacEwan’s positive showing in The Globe and Mail’s Canadian University Report. We were reminded that John Day became Chair of MacEwan’s Board of Governors in July, and Dr. Byrne shared some of the achievements from the last year. Aside from that, the evening had three main areas of focus – new programs, the Bachelor of Music, and the Single Sustainable Campus Project.

One of MacEwan’s newest degrees is the Bachelor of Communication Studies (BCS):

“The BCS prepares graduates for strategic roles in business, traditional and new media, not-for-profit and public sector organizations. Graduates of the BCS program will have a variety of career opportunities to choose from, including communications advisor, consultant, producer, writer, editor, journalist, reporter, or commentator.”

The BCS starts in September 2011 along with a new Accounting major in the Bachelor of Commerce program, and a new Arts and Cultural Management diploma. New programs have been a major area of focus for MacEwan lately, as evidenced by the broad array of “We have a [program] for that.” advertisements that have appeared around the city. They now offer around 70 programs.

Another new program is the Bachelor of Music in Jazz and Contemporary Popular Music, one of the few music programs in Canada to focus on jazz and contemporary music. When the full program is up and running, it will have 350 students. MacEwan will continue to offer its Music Diploma program as well. Music students from the school kept us entertained throughout the evening!

MacEwan President's ReceptionMacEwan President's Reception

Though officials in attendance didn’t spend much time talking about it, the Single Sustainable Campus Project was definitely a focus, with information displays and a looping video available for everyone to look at. This video is a great introduction to and overview of the project:

The project will occur in three phases over the course of 20 years. The Centre for the Arts and Communications, currently located in the west end, will move downtown first, to a new home at the corner of 112 Street and 104 Avenue. The programs at South Campus will move next, followed by Alberta College Campus programs. One of the driving forces behind the project is enrollment. MacEwan currently has around 32,000 students, and that number is expected to grow significantly over the next decade. Sustainability, student satisfaction, and the LRT expansion are some of the other key factors. MacEwan received a $1 million Knowledge and Infrastructure Program (KIP) grant last year to kickstart the project, and is continuing to explore logistics and additional funding opportunities.

MacEwan President's ReceptionMacEwan President's Reception

Grant MacEwan University is an important part of Edmonton’s strong slate of education options, so it’s great to see the school growing and succeeding.  You can follow MacEwan on Twitter and on Facebook.

Mapping where Edmonton’s kids live and learn

On Friday evening, an interactive map I worked on with Edmonton Journal education reporter Sarah O’Donnell went live. Sarah’s first story based on the data was published in the paper today. Here’s our introduction to the project:

With five schools closing in Edmonton’s core and nine new suburban schools opening in September, education reporter Sarah O’Donnell wondered, “Just where do children live?” Local programmer Mack Male worked with The Journal to create an interactive map showing at a glance where children live and where they learn.

Here’s the map we created:

You can also see the map on ShareEdmonton here.

We showed a little of this at MediaCamp a few weeks ago, citing it as an example of traditional media and new media working together to tell a story. Newspapers like the New York Times often publish interactive story elements of course, but this is fairly new for the Journal. And I think it’s just the beginning!

I wanted to share a few notes on how the map was built:

It was an interesting experience for me! We had to double-check the data many times, and had to make decisions about how much/little to show. In that way, it was more like writing words than building a map. Thanks to Sarah for working with me on this!

Here’s what Sarah wrote in her story:

Nine new suburban schools will open next September; like Sister Annata Brockman, some will be close to capacity from the moment they open their doors. One look at a map of where children live shows why.

Most neighbourhoods with the highest number of children are on the city’s fringes. Those are the communities where the new schools are opening.

I was hoping the map would result in some discussion, and it has. Beth Sanders blogged about it this afternoon. She tackles the issue, highlighting as others have that city planning doesn’t “just happen”, rather its the result of many decisions made over time. We need to align our decisions – City Council and EPSB need to be on the same page! Beth finishes with some thoughts on open data:

The City of Edmonton, in creating and providing open source data, is providing a critical feedback loop for Edmontonians to understand how the city we are creating works. There are exciting conversations ahead in Edmonton’s future.

I agree completely. Kudos to the City of Edmonton, Edmonton Public Schools, and Edmonton Catholic Schools for making the data available for this mapping project. I’m positive it is just the first of many tools to come that will help Edmontonians better understand the data and contribute to the future of the city.

If you have any feedback on the map, let me know!

Learning about the Edmonton Public Schools Foundation

Yesterday I attended an information session at Evansdale School on the Edmonton Public Schools Foundation, which launched on February 10. I admit I hadn’t even heard of the foundation until Jeremy mentioned the information sessions to me! I’m glad he did, because it was really interesting to learn about.

Our host for the session was Sandra Woitas, the director of the foundation. She has had a long history with Edmonton Public Schools as a teacher, consultant, and principal. After everyone had introduced themselves, we heard a little about Evansdale School and some of the unique programs it hosts. Next, Sandra welcomed two high school students who spent a few minutes talking about the experiences they have had during their time in the Edmonton Public School system. After that, we got into the information. Sandra gave an excellent overview of the foundation and how it came to be. Here are my notes:

  • The idea for the foundation came in 1996 from then Superintendent Dr. Emery Dosdall. He wanted to include a broad selection of stakeholders to help raise the profile of Edmonton Public Schools.
  • For the next decade or so, the idea floated between administration and the trustees. It wasn’t until trustee Bev Esslinger revived the idea that the ball got rolling again.
  • The foundation is meant to serve the 70% of Edmontonians who pay school taxes but don’t have a connection to the schools (either no kids, or their kids have graduated, etc).
  • In addition to raising the profile of Edmonton Public Schools, the foundation will advocate for improving public education here in Edmonton.
  • One of the areas of focus for the foundation is early childhood education. As Sandra said a few times, “either you pay now or you pay later.” To that end, they hope to raise money for early learning.
  • Full-day kindergarten programs would be one beneficiary. The first was setup at Norwood school thanks to a donation of $78,000 from Denny Andrews. Based on the success of that program, 24 other full-day kindergarten programs were setup throughout the city. There are apparently 15 more on a waiting list.

To finish off the session we were treated to a quick tour of Evansdale School. The school is multicultural, with students from over 40 countries! It also features a number of unique community outreach programs. We visited the full-day kindergarten classroom, and a music class as well. The SMART board in the kindergarten classroom surprised me – I learned that every classroom in the school has one! It was really great to see.

Edmonton Public Schools Foundation

Everyone who attended the session left with gifts! You can see the Evansdale mug, and the beautiful placemat created by a grade six student at the school. The bag of seeds came with a little explanation from Sandra: “what we’re doing with the foundation right now is planting seeds.”

If you’d like to support the Edmonton Public Schools Foundation, tell a friend about it! Or consider attending the fundraising breakfast on May 20 (on ShareEdmonton).

Edmonton Public Schools & Open Data

Today I’m very excited to announce that Edmonton Public Schools has taken a big step into the world of open data by releasing a data set containing information on all of their schools, including the six opening later this year. I understand the data will be made available in the City of Edmonton’s Open Data Catalogue early next week, but you can download the CSV file today if you like.

Download the Edmonton Public Schools Data in CSV

Back in early February I met Jeremy and Paul for lunch to chat about open data and the community here in Edmonton. One of the things we talked about was how Edmonton Public Schools could get involved. In addition to attending events like the Open City Workshop, Jeremy and his team also started working behind-the-scenes to pull together data that might be useful to share. I helped define the fields that should be included and did the geocoding work, but they did all the rest. The result is a great data set of public schools in Edmonton, containing the name, address, lat/long, grade levels, programming information, and contact details for each.

Edmonton Public Schools follows in the footsteps of the Edmonton Public Library in embracing open data. Both organizations should be applauded for being “early adopters” and for their enthusiastic participation in the open data movement here in Edmonton. They have set an example that others can follow. Specifically:

  • Start small! EPL released branch locations, EPSB released school locations.
  • Work with the community! In both cases, I was able to help with some of the work. There are many others in the community who are eager to help as well.
  • Engage the City! In addition to getting the data in the catalogue, which is really important to have a central repository, the City has also offered some suggestions for improvements.

Thank you to Jeremy and the rest of the team at Edmonton Public Schools for making this happen!

No post about a new data set would be complete without mentioning that the data is now available at ShareEdmonton! You can now see a list of all public schools and on the details page for each one, you can see the relevant school ward, grade level, and programming information on the right side (for example, McNally, the high school I attended). More improvements coming soon!

Education is about grading – and that sucks

Post ImageIt is no secret that I have a lot of issues with our education system. I think there are lots of things that could be done better, especially fixing this:

“All through school, from kindergarten up, you were taught that mistakes are a bad thing. You were downgraded for the mistakes that you made.

It is perfectly apparent from what [schools] do in examinations where errors are identified, [that] education is not about learning. It is about grading. Because if they were interested in learning, they would give you the same examination back a week later, to see if you had corrected your mistakes. But they’re not interested in that, they’re interested in giving you a grade.

So it is impressed on you, mistakes are a bad thing. [Ed: And learning by making mistakes is a bad thing.]”

Russell Ackoff Talk, ISSS Cancun 2005, 49th Meeting

Experience should confirm that some of the most important lessons you learn in life come after making a mistake. Too bad the education system doesn’t feel the same way.

Note that in the above quote he doesn’t mention teachers, just schools. I know there are a lot of teachers who would rather help students learn than simply assign them a grade, but their jobs depend on assigning marks. And unfortunately, I think too many teachers put this fact (that they need to produce good test scores) ahead of the educational well-being of their students. For more on this, you should definitely read the first chapter of the wonderful Freakonomics.

Read: Nivi

Maclean's sucks up to the U of A

Post ImageI don’t know about you, but today I lost all remaining respect that I had for Maclean’s magazine. The annual ranking of Canadian universities came out, and the University of Alberta placed first in the reputational ranking. Kind of suspect, don’t you think, considering the U of A led the charge to boycott the rankings due to suspect methodologies. If there was any doubt about why the U of A and 26 other universities chose to boycott the ranking, I think it’s gone now. Nothing says guilty like sucking up.

If you’d like to see past results, the University of Waterloo has a handy page with all the data – not surprising considering they have ranked first in 13 out of 16 years the rankings have been produced.

For its part, the University of Alberta stands by the earlier decision, though Provost and Vice President (Academic) Carl Amrhein said placing first “certainly feels good.” I guess that’s a fairly diplomatic answer.

Read: Maclean’s

Vancouver students to get Olympic break?

Post ImageI guess the 2010 Winter Games is a pretty good excuse to give students two weeks off, eh? Well, post secondary students at least, because they might be able to work or volunteer at the games. Nothing is certain yet, but a nice break for students definitely seems likely:

Spokeswoman Renee Smith-Valade said Vancouver’s Olympic organizing committee wants “to ensure that every child and youth has some opportunity to touch and feel the experience of the 2010 Winter Games.”

As you might have guessed, there is definite opposition to extending the break to students in elementary and secondary schools. B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Jinny Sims had this to say:

“I cannot imagine this government, led by this premier who has brought in legislation after legislation to show that education is an essential service, condoning school closures for two weeks.”

I don’t know how I’d feel if I were a parent about such a break. I’m guessing I probably wouldn’t approve. I’d certainly want my child to experience the Games, but there’s no reason to miss two whole weeks.

Read: CBC News

Podcasting University Lectures

Post ImageBlogMatrix has a post up today about podcasting university lectures – particularly appropriate since I start classes again for the Fall semester bright and early tomorrow morning. While I fully intend to go to at least the first week of classes, all bets are off after that. And no, it’s not because I am lazy, or going shopping or anything like that, I simply have a business to run. Sometimes business and school conflict, and you need to make a decision – which is more important, this meeting, or a lecture? Most times, for better or for worse, I choose the meeting.

I wouldn’t miss anything though if the lecture was being recorded and made available as a podcast.

While the BlogMatrix post is more a point-form plan for how to implement such a thing, and how it would work, it touches on a few important points that deserve to be highlighted.

Podcasting a lecture is for the students in attendance too!
Of course there will be people like me who skip the lecture to do something else and simply want to listen to the podcast later. More importantly though, podcasting a lecture is useful for the students in attendance, as BlogMatrix points out: “students, instead of taking notes (or only notes), would record the time of a particular interesting or salient comment”. That would be incredibly useful. This point needs to be made very clear to the decision makers in a University, as they will most certainly protest the idea initially, citing fears that no one will go to class. I think such fears are baseless – there is value in attending the lecture, such as being able to participate in the conversation.

(As an aside, if the lecture contains no interaction and is just the professor standing at the front talking, then I’d be GLAD if podcasting it made attendance drop to zero. It’s ridiculous that students pay $500 for something like that, because you know most of the fees go to paying the professor anyway. It’s examples like this that show just how antiquated and bureaucratic the university system can be.)

The Wisdom of Crowds
Or in this case, the wisdom of students in the class. Let’s assume students can bookmark parts of the lecture – perhaps the most important or interesting parts. As noted in the BlogMatrix post, this is powerful stuff: “Collecting all these bookmarks across all students (and potentially across time) will provide collective intelligence/data mining/insight into what is really import in the lecture”. The ability to tag lectures and specific segments would further this collective wisdom.

Is security really an issue?
I don’t think so. The University doesn’t want people getting the lectures for free – I understand that. But how is making an MP3 file available any different than having some random person walk in off the street, sit in the class for an hour with a recorder, and put it online later? Especially in a lecture with 400+ students, I am surprised this doesn’t happen more actually. As long as sensitive or personal information is not included in the podcast, I don’t see security being much of an issue. I do agree with BlogMatrix though: “I don’t believe it’s the place of the vendor (i.e. me) to dictate requirements to a client”. If a university really wanted to integrate security, it shouldn’t be that difficult, as all universities have pretty extensive systems in place already.

Now, let’s look at this from the perspective of Podcast Spot (if you want a test account, email me). Could our technology support such a thing? With a few tweaks here and there, I believe so. We’ve got all the basics covered (like tags and comments), as well as a few of the more interesting requirements (such as random access). And there’s a bunch more features on the way too (such as improved methods of working with segments). It’s not going to happen (because I better graduate in April) but it sure would be cool to see Podcast Spot being used in my school. Maybe I’ll see it as an alumni 😉

I think podcasting will catch on in schools and other similar institutions, but it will take time. People inside the education world need to grok the benefits of podcasting, and still more have to lose their fear of the technology. When that happens, I think everyone will benefit.

Read: BlogMatrix

NAIT to be Canada's largest tech school

Post ImageAccording to an article in today’s Edmonton Journal, it appears that the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology is planning to spend a ton of cash in an effort to become one of North America’s largest technical schools. The project sounds fairly ambitious:

A brand-new campus twice the size of the current main campus will be built somewhere in the south side, and the main campus in north-central Edmonton will be expanded to include a “student village” with residences and possibly an LRT station.

Over the next 25 to 30 years, NAIT’s other eight locations in the Edmonton area, such as Souch campus at Gateway Boulevard and 71st Avenue, will be consolidated into the two main sites.

The $750-million project will attempt to increase enrolment to 95,000 students from the 65,000 to help in easing Alberta’s “critical shortage of skilled workers.” One of the highlights is a new Centre for Health and Wellness, to be completed as early as 2009, that will include a fitness centre, aquatic facilities, and a health clinic.

I admit I was a little surprised when I first read the article, but I think it’s great that all of our educational institutions are expanding, and not just the University. This project probably wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago, when the south LRT extensions had not been approved – the south side campus is a reflection of the direction Edmonton’s growth is heading, and in fact has been heading for quite some time.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this project unfolds. It’s too bad they didn’t announce it a couple months ago, when they could have been featured in some of the Edmonton real-estate and growth publications!

Read: Edmonton Journal