Technology

Review: STM dux case for iPad Pro 12.9

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Any iPad Pro user who uses the Apple Pencil daily needs a long-term solution for storing the Pencil. As much as I love the iPad Pro, I feel that one of its major design shortcomings is that there is no place to permanently store the Pencil when not in use. Numerous reviews have pointed this out when comparing the iPad Pro to Microsoft’s Surface series (which has a magnetic connection that holds the Surface Pen quite securely), so I won’t labour the point.

I just want to note it at the beginning here because I deliberately ignored this fact and tried to use the iPad Pro for almost an entire year without doing anything to protect the Pencil. And that was a mistake. I did the same thing with the iPhone 4 when I first purchased it; I initially used it without a case and within 3 months the glass back had (predictably) shattered. Similar things happened with my Apple Pencil. First, the cap that protects the Lightning connector fell off and was lost inside the lining of my carry bag (eventually I found it by accident). Second, I left my bag leaning against a cabinet at the end of a school day, and did not realise that the Pencil within the bag was also leaning in the same way. Overnight, the cabinet applied pressure to the rubber tip of the Pencil and by the morning the tip had snapped off. This was particularly problematic because the half of the tip with the screw thread on it remained lodged inside the Pencil itself and was quite difficult to remove. The replacement tips weren’t cheap either!

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That’s why I was really delighted to unwrap the STM iPad Pro dux case. STM very kindly sent me one to see whether it would fit my purposes on a day-to-day basis. The dux is a sturdy shell that covers the back of the iPad Pro so that you can use the Smart Keyboard or Smart Cover if you prefer (as you can see in the images, I do the latter).

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The rim of the case is a flexible black plastic that snugly houses the iPad, while the backing is a thick, clear and rigid plastic that offers strong protection and allows the branding of the iPad to show through (which is a nice touch). It does add a reasonable amount of thickness to the iPad, which I wish it didn’t, but there’s a good reason for it which I’ll get onto later.

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The whole case feels solid and keeps the iPad safe from falls and other kinds of damage. I’m very pleased with the build quality and the case rim is a nice balance between rigidity and flexibility so that it doesn’t feel like the iPad will fall out at any time but it’s quite easy to remove the case if you want to.

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The most important feature for me, as I mentioned above, was that there is a convenient location for the Pencil. It is nestled into a special section on the rim, which is why the case is the thickness that it is; it makes the case wide enough along its edge to store the Pencil without adding any more thickness. (Many of the other cases I’ve seen, such as the one from Studio Proper, position the Pencil in such a way that it sits on the face of back of the iPad and therefore makes the entire profile much thicker.) Just like the case overall, the Pencil holder is firm but flexible. You won’t feel as though it will ever accidentally fall out, and in fact I tend to flex the lip of the Pencil holder slightly outward in order to ease the Pencil out.

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There are other ways to store your Apple Pencil. I’ve seen some very attractive desk holders, and some even charge the Pencil when it’s in the holder. But for someone like me who is constantly leaving my desk (to go to class) and frequently on the move (to visit students or attend meetings), the best option is for a case that can hold the Pencil so it’s always there when I need it. I’ve really enjoyed using the dux case and have more or less gotten used to the extra size it it gives to my device – so I’d happily recommend it to anyone with the iPad Pro who uses the Pencil a lot.

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iPad pro + Apple pencil + 1 mathematics teacher = ?

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Articles about pieces of technology generally come in three phases:

  • The first phase comes from the press, who’ve either had access to early versions of the device or are there at the launch event. They have stuff pre-written, primed and ready to go so that as soon as the product is officially announced, people will be able to find something as soon as they hit Google.
  • The second phase comes from the first people who are actually able to buy the product, generally a few weeks later. These are naturally accompanied by the obligatory unboxing videos (a hilariously fascinating genre of content if ever there was one) and generally give first impressions of each device (they can’t give much else because, you know, they just opened the thing 5 minutes ago).
  • The third phase are the “long term” reviews, maybe a month or two later. There are fewer of these because the initial excitement has died down, but people are actually interested in giving their thoughts now that they’ve gotten used to how the device works and can give a more measured explanation of its pros and cons.

And then there are articles like this one, which… well, the iPad Pro was released almost a year ago now. It’s been so long since I first got this device that another iPad Pro has already been released in the intervening time. So why do I think it’s still relevant to write this thing?

Basically, it’s because I’m still getting questions about my iPad Pro wherever I take it. It’s my preferred device for taking notes – so I lug it around with me to any conferences I attend – and pretty much every time I get it out, someone nearby will say, “what is that?” And when I explain that it’s an iPad, I’m almost universally met with surprise. So I guess, despite this tablet’s age, there are still plenty of people out there who don’t know much about it. So hopefully this will give you a bit of a better idea.

This is not a product review. It’s more of a reflection on my specific experience with this pair of devices. But in some ways, it’s the review I couldn’t find. Before I got my hands on an iPad Pro and its surprisingly uncommon accessory, the Apple Pencil, I searched in vain for a review that answered my specific questions. The closest I got was this write-up from AnandTech.

But all of that was to be completely expected, because I’m what you call a very narrow use case. I have very peculiar and idiosyncratic desires and interests in a device like the iPad pro. That’s because I’m a mathematics teacher.

I wouldn’t blame you if you aren’t connecting the dots yet. So let me explain. Though this may not be everyone’s memory of it, the fact is that mathematics is a highly visual subject. From the diagrams of deductive geometry, to the construction and interpretation of graphs, to the notation and equations of calculus – understanding and communicating mathematics is saturated with images and symbols. Not only that, the actual thinking and doing of mathematics usually takes place through the medium of this visual language. Mathematicians think by drawing and writing. Drawing and writing aren’t just representations for communicating mathematical thought; they are mechanisms for constructing mathematical thought. That’s why we call it “working out”.

As a mathematics teacher, I do a lot of this mathematical thinking each day. I do it to remind myself of the processes and common misconceptions in what I teach my students; I do it so my students have solutions to the tests I’ve set them; and I do it to answer questions that my students request help with.

What this means is that I end up using a _lot_ of paper. In the course of a normal school year I will produce hundreds of pages of handwritten notes. People tend to give me a bit of a strange look when they see me scrawling marks on a page, partly because I have a reputation (which is, in some ways, justly deserved) for being really into technology and eschewing traditional ways of doing things. (There’s a false dichotomy operating there – I’ll address that in a minute.) “Why don’t you type those notes? Wouldn’t it be better to have all those notes electronically filed and organised?”

The answer, at least to me, is not straightforward. Yes, it’s great having content in an electronic form. It’s easier to search for myself and to share with others. But there’s a price. Computer keyboards were not designed for entering formulas, equations or mathematical notation. Mice were not built with the construction of mathematical diagrams in mind. That’s not their fault; there are hundreds of other tasks that they excel at. Expressing mathematical thought just isn’t one of them. After more than a decade of practice and thousands of hours using a wide range of software platforms that are intended for this purpose, I still find keyboards and mice a wholly inadequate replacement for a simple pencil and paper. When I enter mathematical script using a keyboard, even though I am quite adept at it, my attention is focused on the typing and not the thinking.

An analogy will help here. I grew up in a bilingual home. My parents moved to Australia from Malaysia more than 40 years ago, so they are fluent in English, but it is definitely not the language they are most comfortable with. Despite their preference to speak in Chinese, they made a very deliberate decision to talk to us primarily in English. But because of their background, they experienced significant difficulties with this. I lost count of the number of times they would pause midsentence, frozen in thought, as they translated on-the-fly from their mother tongue into mine. Sometimes they would simply give up, resorting to finishing their sentence in Chinese and leaving me to try and work out their meaning from the context and their body language. And it is the same for me and mathematics. Analogue input is my mother tongue; I can think in it immediately and without interrupting my flow of thought. So while I recognise the importance of having a lot of my mathematics in electronic form (primarily assessment tasks), I have a hard time imagining doing the lion’s share of my mathematical thinking any other way than with a pencil in my hand.

I guess what I’m saying is that I use different technologies constantly and I love the benefit they bring, but I’ve always been very conscious of the (often hidden) disadvantages they include. Failing to do so always leaves us in an exhausting form of technological idealism, where we are constantly looking at the next big app or device as the “thing that will revolutionize education” – and always leaves us disappointed. (The lesson to learn here is that if someone tells you something has a straightforward solution, they are probably trying to sell you something.) That means I reject the notion that we must completely abandon traditional ways of doing things if we are the kinds of people who embrace technology in the classroom.

I’m convinced that there are healthy ways to combine them for the sake of student learning, which is the real goal – not an attitude one way or the other with regard to technology (which is not the heart of the issue). As a result, I always find conversations that are centred on this technology or that technology to be quite dull. I want to talk about the learners and what they are getting out of the different experiences that various platforms or devices can bring. That’s the real currency I deal in.

Which brings me back to the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. Almost every single detailed review of the Pencil that I’ve found has been focused on its capacity to enable artistic expression. But my primary interest is in the Pencil’s capacity to enable cognitive expression. And without overstating it, after about ten months of non-stop use, I’m ready to deliver my personal verdict.

I love this thing.

I love it because it supports my learning, my explanations, my organisational structures and my thinking. I’ve found it to be so effective that integrating it into my normal workflow has changed the way I do things as fundamentally as the first time I started using email in the cloud or began storing and manipulating data in spreadsheets rather than word processing documents. There’s been a huge shift. Yet while there’s been a massive amount of change, much of what I’ve done has stayed the same – in fact, in some instances, has become more rooted in ways of the past. It’s a living expression of that tension I was talking to you about before. The iPad Pro and Apple Pencil capture that tension in a unique and powerful way that really resonates with me.

So, I’m a fan. But don’t worry, I recognise that these devices are far from perfect – there are some obvious drawbacks that I also want to point out. First, let’s get down to a bit of context which explains the particular way that I use my iPad Pro.

I already own several devices that bear similarities to the Pro. Most obviously, I have an iPad Air 2 that I use for recording my classroom lessons (which I regularly post onto YouTube). Since this iPad has such a specific purpose, for me it overlaps less with the Pro than you would necessarily think; that’s because the Air sits permanently on top of a tripod in the middle of my classroom during my lessons, so I never connect it to my data projector to show visuals or write lesson notes on it. Its next most common use is to edit and upload those videos. When it isn’t occupied for those purposes, the Air does fill the role of a secondary device quite effectively. Like most people, I use it for light email and internet browsing when I’m away from my desk. Because of its size, it’s very handy just to pick up and go when I have to visit a student or teacher quickly then return to my work station; I can use it easily while standing up or walking, which I think is one of the main benefits of tablets in general.

My primary device is a 13.3 inch Windows laptop. I’ve owned laptops up to 15.6 inch before, but found them too bulky and heavy to carry between my classrooms with all the other gear I lug around on a regular basis (textbooks, exam papers, teacher’s diary, pencil case, my iPad Air and the microphone that goes with it). It’s not just my lack of upper body strength that leads me to say that – during my teaching career I’ve used and broken several carry bags, and the point of failure every time is the straps, indicating that I’m always trying to carry too much stuff. For this reason, I’ve also used 10 and 11 inch netbooks before – but I’ve always found them too much of a compromise to use extensively. The lack of a full size keyboard, the diminutive screen that limits my ability to effectively multi-task (e.g. simultaneously viewing my report spreadsheet while writing my reports in a browser) and the inevitably downsized processor/RAM always prevent me from feeling at home on such a small device.

My 13.3 is a very happy compromise between these extremes for me. It’s a Dell XPS 13 that I purchased about two years ago. The screen is a sufficiently high resolution that I can display as much content as I want, and the combination of a high-spec Core i7 processor with loads of RAM and a very handy solid state drive mean that so far it isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Significantly, the keyboard is a pleasure to use and I can type on it just as fast as I can on any desktop. This is important because it’s the main reason why I decided not to purchase the Smart Keyboard that was designed to pair with the iPad Pro; if I want to do serious typing, I take my laptop. I never intended for the Pro to be a desktop replacement and I wasn’t interested in seeing if it could perform in that role for me.

So then, those are all the ways I _don’t_ use my iPad Pro. What ways _do_ I use it? There are two apps, apart from standard web browsing and email, that dominate my use of the Pro. They are Google Drive (along with its satellite apps, Docs and Sheets) and Notability, which I’ll talk about in turn.

I’ve been into Google Drive for a long time. Back in 2009 I was the intranet coordinator at my school and I drove the school’s adoption of Google Apps for Education. But I would describe myself as having my feet firmly in two camps when it came to using Docs, Sheets and all cloud-based options in general, because while I loved the principle of having everything accessible on all my internet-enabled devices, there were some practical issues that held me back and kept me committed to using desktop software.

The two main issues were formatting and mobile apps. I know it may sound silly, but my time as a semi-professional web, print and graphic designer has really spoiled me in terms of how much control I need over the typography and typesetting in the documents I work with. Things like font face, weight and spacing convey meaning and emphasis. Table layouts and bulleting structure can make the difference between documents that are clear or opaque. Just like a public speaker who has control over their tone, pitch and speed can communicate better than one who does not, software that permits precise control over visual attributes enables us to make documents that are more really digested and understood by readers.

For a long time, Docs and Sheets simply did not give me the amount of freedom I wanted in designing things. But that has improved markedly over the last couple of years, to the point where I can now create a document entirely in Docs and be happy enough with its layout and fonts that I can go directly to print without going anywhere near a desktop program. There are still a few small things in this area where Docs isn’t perfect, the most notable of which is its support for mathematical equations (which is present, but minimal), but I’ve become more and more impressed as years go by and new features are added (for free, I might add!).

The mobile apps are a similar story. I don’t expect an app on a phone or tablet to give me an identical experience to what I’ll get on a desktop in a browser, but got quite a while there was too far a gap between the two. Remembering that the fully-featured versions of Docs and Sheets are kind of like trimmed down versions of their desktop counterparts, and mobile apps are trimmed down versions of their browser counterparts, you can see that if you were on an iPad you were getting a very lightweight experience of spreadsheets and word processing. But recently, the native iOS apps for Docs, Sheets and Drive have gained a core feature set that makes them genuinely useful and sometimes even a pleasure to work with. More and more, I’ve found myself able to do everything I need on my tablet while in my classroom without needing to return to my desk – it’s been liberating.

That brings me to Notability. As I said earlier, I had a very clear use for my iPad Pro in mind from the beginning, so one of the very first things I did during my initial setup of the Pro was to download every note-taking app I could find. Trawling the internet for reviews and soliciting some of my online contacts for suggestions, I settled on the following list of apps to try:

  • Notes (i.e. the default iOS app)
  • Penultimate
  • OneNote
  • Upad
  • Notability

There are two apps that I installed but did not include on that list – Explain Everything and Doceri. Both of these are screencasting apps, which I was interested in at a basic level, but as I’ve stated above, was not my main intention for the Pro. Neither app is updated for the Pro’s higher resolution yet, so I haven’t invested any time to really give either of them a proper try.

The five apps on my list are, by contrast, note-taking apps through and through. I used each one extensively for about a week before moving onto the next one, so that I could gain a deep sense of each app’s strengths and shortcomings. So here’s my app-by-app overview:

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Notability came out as the clear front-runner. Probably the two most distinctive and frequently useful features were (1) its ability to modify text/diagrams after they are written/drawn and (2) its seamless integration with Google Drive, which makes the content I create in Notability instantly more shareable and useful. (From the PDF I can print in high quality since it exports my writing as vectors rather than bitmaps, or I can just email it to someone if that is more convenient. I’ve done both of these several times at work over the last three months and have been very pleased with the output.)

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I do want to say something about my overall writing experience across all apps – in other words, what I found to be true because of the way Apple has designed the Pro and the Pencil. Essentially, it feels like magic. After about 2 months of daily use, I reached the point where it felt equally natural to write on the Pro as I did on paper. I no longer notice things like the smoothness of the glass and the Pencil itself, which I remember bothering me at the beginning. In fact, I even find it easier to write with the Pencil over long periods of time because I only have to apply minimal pressure to make clear marks (when I write on paper, out of habit I press quite hard with my pen).

These have been said many times before, so I won’t dwell on them: the lack of discernible lag and the highly reliable palm rejection are the main things that make the Pencil feel so compelling in normal use. My handwriting on the Pro looks exactly my handwriting on paper, and that’s because Apple has successfully engineered the Pencil and Pro so that you don’t need to adjust the way you write to use them effectively.

And this is what makes the whole experience so effective for me as a mathematics teacher. Essentially the Pro has taken all the handwriting I would normally be doing – and as I’ve established, that’s a lot – and supercharged it by integrating it into an electronic workflow. I have several “subjects” set up in Notability, each of which syncs automatically to a separate folder in Google Drive. The synchronisation happens seamlessly in the background whenever I close a document – which means I don’t have the live version backed up like I do in Google Docs or Microsoft OneNote, but if I want to manually trigger the app to update a file on Drive then all I have to do is close and re-open it. This means that whenever I need a document, no matter how long ago I’ve made it, I can get to it from any of my internet-connected devices. This has been useful on dozens of occasions already – taking minutes on a meeting and immediately emailing them out to staff, pulling up an example worked solution to a question posed by a student about a topic we’d looked at several weeks prior, and displaying the solutions to a past exam paper (along with my live annotations) on a data projector for the whole class to see, among many other examples of how this has been useful to me.

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One feature that I particularly want to highlight is the ability to select and rearrange or cut and paste marks on the page. I want to point it out because it’s a feature I didn’t even know I wanted – but once I understood it and got used to it, found myself using it constantly (literally, hundreds of times a day) and really miss being able to do it when I return to writing on paper. This takes one of the very best features of typing and imports it into the sphere of handwriting. Anyone who writes frequently – whether it’s emails, essays, reports, articles or fiction – basically takes it for granted that we write (and think) in stops and starts. It’s rare to find someone who can think of the perfect words and grammar to convey their meaning in the exact order and at the exact speed to type them down. Most of us need to write, delete, rephrase, and edit several times before we get something we’re satisfied with. Personally, I tend to write/type out my ideas and then read my sentences back to myself as if I were speaking them to get a sense as to whether a sentence is clear or not. I like to ensure that my paragraphs have a measure of rhythm to them, and this usually requires copious editing.

Proofreading sentences (and equations!) is equally easy on a hard copy as it is on a digital copy. But the actual act of reworking something so that it’s clearer or more powerful is immensely easier to do on a computer. The ease with which you can rearrange and replace phrases (or mathematical symbols) is one of the killer features on a digital word processor, something that we often take for granted when all we do is type all day. And being able to do that with the handwritten script I produce through the Pencil is truly like having the best of both worlds.

Here, at the end of this article, let me mention something which is usually the first thing you find in a review about the iPad Pro: its size. Putting together this write-up has taken me such a long time that Apple has already released its “next” version of the iPad Pro – the 9.7 inch version (i.e. in the same form factor as the iPad Air). However, given my time to settling into using the original Pro, I think 12.9 inches is the best size for this device.

Let me take a step back before I justify that opinion. Okay, I get it: everyone is gobsmacked by the Pro’s size when they first see it. It’s always the first thing people comment on when they see me using it. That’s unsurprising for two reasons: (1) the Pro’s size is the only fact about it you can notice within 1 second of seeing it, and (2) everyone is mentally comparing the Pro to a 9.7 inch tablet, because that’s what they’re used to. The first point is obviously unavoidable, but I think the second point is actually an honest mistake. I don’t think the Pro is trying to be a better version of the Air; I think it’s trying to be something else altogether (hence the Pro moniker). If you’ve read this far into this post turn you probably won’t be surprised when I say I think the Pro is just the right size at 12.9 inches because of what I am comparing it to: an A4 piece of paper. The writable surface of each is basically identical, and I don’t want either of them to be any smaller than they are right now.

There are other benefits, too. I’ve tried doing Split Screen on a 9.7 inch screen and it feels just like it did on those 10 inch netbooks I mentioned earlier: cramped and not designed for this purpose. But I’ve done legitimate multi-tasking on the Pro numerous times and found it quite a comfortable experience (most frequently with Notability on the left and iBooks, email or Safari on the right).

So, here ends my rambling set of thoughts on the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. I felt compelled to write about them because they are that rare instance of technology that has genuinely managed to make me adjust my workflow because I get access to significant new benefits this way. There are lots of things I haven’t said but I’ve already written far too much here – so I hope it’s helpful to some of you and if you’ve got further questions, feel free to send them my way!

The secret sauce

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I’ve said this to my classes many times, but I don’t mention this enough in public.

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After years of surprisingly positive feedback about my channel, I’ve finally come to understand and wholeheartedly believe that a large part of why my videos are so helpful to people is because there are real students in the room – watching, listening, interacting, questioning, telling me to slow down or clarify or explain something I’d not realised was important to the idea at hand. They are the secret behind what makes the lessons work. To all of you out there, past and present – thank you. 🙂

 

#aussieED

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I’ve written before about how scheduled chats are one of the most powerful “features” of Twitter. I write that with quotation marks because they are more a function of social self-organisation than they are of the Twitter system itself. But nonetheless, the inherently real-time nature of Twitter makes this kind of discussion at home on this platform more than any other.

A few days ago I had the joy of co-hosting the Sunday night #aussieED chat with Brett Salakas (#aussieED founder) and Graham Andre (The Mathematics Shed editor). Brett and his team started this chat last year and it has blossomed into one of the most vibrant communities of educators that I’m aware of, both online and off – they really deserve to be commended for their efforts. The reason I got in on the act this time was that the theme was none other than mathematics (something I was very pleased to see on the agenda of a chat that is intentionally cross-KLA and cross-sector). Since I had a hand in composing the questions beforehand, I also took the liberty of preparing some of my responses ahead of the chat itself (so that I could spend the actual hour interacting with others as much as possible). Here are some of the tweets I sent out (including a handful of images I created specifically for the chat):

In answer to the question: “Maths is either right or wrong.” Agree or disagree? Why or why not?

In answer to the question: Can you be creative teaching maths, if so how?

In answer to the question: Share one tech (app, website etc.) maths tool that you couldn’t be without.

In answer to the question: What is your favourite strategy for engaging your students in mathematical thinking?

In answer to the question: How do you teach maths cross curricular?

There’s much more than that, and especially a lot of fantastic ideas shared by others. Check out the Storify of the chat (part 1, part 2) for more good stuff!

The Silver Bullet (continued)

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This is the second post in a series; if you haven’t yet, read the first post.

Last time I wrote about how online video has certain characteristics that make it really useful as a means of professional learning (PL). Of course, it would be foolish to ever try and make the case that one means of PL should ever replace others; the point is to work out each one’s unique strengths and leverage those in the right situations. Most would agree, for instance, that one-on-one mentoring in combination with practicum-like opportunities would produce the best learning outcomes for developing teachers. But the economics of the situation dictate that these can only be given to pre-service teachers for a limited number of weeks, and only once or twice during their whole teacher training process. Therefore other PL delivery methods must be employed, which may be inferior in many ways but still provide needed assistance to teachers looking to develop their skills.

Here are four advantages that I thought of for using short-form online video for PL. For every advantage there’s a disadvantage, of course. But that’s not the point! So here we go: online video is accessible, cost-effective, bite-sized and personal.

Accessible
Let’s start with some of the simpler advantages. Online video is as far away as your nearest internet-enabled device. For many these days, that’s right in their pocket – their smartphone, which is very likely being used to consume plenty of video content already. Alternatively, a home or work computer would provide a better screen and viewing experience.

Assuming internet connectivity (which, though not universal, is not an unreasonable assumption), this is a major benefit that shouldn’t be overlooked. Many PL courses are far away – every single one I have attended has been a minimum of 40 minutes’ drive away from my home, and some have been significantly further (e.g. commuting into the city, MANSW conferences that are held at regional locations and even interstate events). In that 40 minutes, I could have watched a couple of videos, spent some time in critical self-reflection and planning, and gotten back into the classroom to give this new idea a go – all still with time to make a cup of tea.

Cost-effective
Online video can be served, with accompanying materials (such as documentation or relevant learning resources), for free. I’m not saying that it should be – in order to make this type of platform viable in the long term, there ought to be a business strategy of some kind to ensure that high-quality PL can be delivered rather than just what can be produced in someone’s spare time – but I’m merely establishing that it can be. Even the most humble forms of PL today have significant overheads, such as a venue, printed materials, presentation equipment and food – not to mention the considerable fee of the person running the session! I do realise that one would need the internet and a device to benefit from online video, but I don’t include that as a relevant cost because the vast majority of people in today’s society will have purchased that already for completely separate purposes.

This is a really big deal. Schools are provided with funds for their staff to engage in PL, but those funds are severely limited (just like everything else in public schools). This is a privilege that not all people or organisations get to enjoy; many need to fund their (mandated) PL out of their own pockets. There are many ideals in education, but a great number of them are constrained simply by costs. What kind of tsunami would be unleashed by a wave of freely available, high-quality PL resources for teachers? It’s a genuinely exciting possibility to consider.

Bite-sized
The developers and facilitators of in-service courses have a really tough job. They are typically engaged to provide PL in once-off large-portion pieces, despite the fact that they may not be the best form for participants’ learning. Why do they do it? The reasons, again, are economical in nature. For instance, if I spend two to three hours travelling to and from the city for a course, I want the facilitators to make it worth my while – so I expect them to give me at least four to five hours of reasonably dense content, or else I won’t feel that I have gotten value for my money or time. In a similar way, if we hire a qualified speaker to come and address our staff for a sum in the thousands of dollars, we want him or her to provide us with a substantial amount of content – a 15-minute presentation simply would not do.

So, people are compelled toward giving PL in long formats by financial motivations, rather than pedagogical ones. That’s sad, but hard to avoid. I’ve sat in many a PL session where my fellow audience members on either side of me are fast asleep – not because the content is poor (though it can be), but more because the content is simply long. But presenters are obliged to give these kinds of sessions.

Then a new kind of problem emerges when you attend PL that comes in the form of a conference that spans multiple days. In these contexts, sessions may be broken up and delivered in many smaller chunks, which goes a way toward helping the attention problem. But then the situation arises where your mind becomes filled with so many excellent concepts and new ideas to implement, in isolation from opportunities to actually trial those ideas in the classroom and assess their value for day-to-day teaching.

Incidentally, this is why “lunchroom dialogue” is so vital to teachers; it is where short conversations about effective and ineffective practice can be held, new ideas are raised and proposed, and then the avenue for trialling those ideas is immediately presented when the bell goes and everyone needs to head to their next class. In these kinds of situations, there is a very short distance for the entire idea-implementation-feedback loop and so learning happens rapidly. When attending a PL conference, the loop widens dramatically and new teaching ideas tend to get stored away in the resource filing cabinet of our brain, marked as “to be referred to at a later date” – whether or not that ever actually happens. Our minds also aren’t as sharply attuned to the strengths and weaknesses of new ideas being presented, because we are divorced by time and physical distance from our classrooms where these ideas can be implemented. When you’re in middle of the kitchen with pots boiling all around you, cooking techniques take on a new urgency and importance.

For online video, 15 minutes is a long time. 4 minutes is common and 9 minutes is about the median for educational content. Obviously this means that complicated ideas need several videos to develop, but in practice this seems to work just fine with our brain’s inclination toward instant gratification. These lengths are far more manageable than a day-long or days-long course; they allow us to process the ideas and try them out in the real world before rejecting them or coming back for more.

Personal
In years gone past, the phrase “online learning” was synonymous with text and images. The internet was essentially a parallel medium to the textbook, and the reason was technological limitation more than anything else. Other kinds of data, namely audio and video, were too large to practically transfer along an internet connection, when it first became feasible it was difficult to imagine anyone streaming video along an internet connection that a regular family could afford. And yet with broadband internet as fast and cheap as it is now (even without the NBN), Youtube is one of the most trafficked sites on the entire internet (smart move by Google to buy it back in 2006).

Online PL is yet to catch up. Today, teachers across the state have to go through mandatory anaphylaxis and emergency care training, and the online sessions are all carried out through text. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but certain parts of the refresher course would be ideal to be presented through online video – a human presenter is far more engaging than reading text, especially for the kind of content that this course includes. People view online PL as a very impersonal kind of medium, and it certainly is not as personal as actual human contact (that is true by definition) – but if video is used effectively, it can be far more personal than a straight body of text. It allows for better delivery of tone and body language, all of which is critical to human communication. In fact, effectively designed short-form video can be a very close analog to the kind of brief lunchtime conversation that I mentioned before.

So, in conclusion – does online video have something to offer to professional learning? I think it has plenty. Who will devote the time and resources to explore that reality? Now that’s the question we must all ask ourselves.

Is video the professional learning silver bullet?

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Now that I’ve got your attention, allow me to immediately let you down by telling you that the answer is no. But does video – specifically, online streaming video in relatively small* chunks, as has been popularised by Youtube and its brethren – have the potential to solve some really important problems in professional learning (hereafter PL)? Only time (and some significant trial and error) will tell, but I think there may be something really valuable here, if we’re willing to explore it.

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To explain, let me give you some context first. Last week I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Chris Tisdell, who lectures in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of New South Wales. Some may think that what I’ve been doing with my Youtube channel is quite new, but Chris has been in this game for over 6 years now (his channel has almost 16000 subscribers)! Admittedly he’s been uploading videos on university-level mathematics and I’ve been covering content from high school, but in principle we’re about the same thing: explaining maths clearly and for free. So it shouldn’t have surprised me to find that Chris and I are on the same page in a whole lot of ways –in our motivations for what we’re doing, in our attitudes toward maths education (and maths educators!), and in what excites us about this new and fledgling platform of learning through online video.

But the truth is that as we talked, I found it utterly refreshing – not just because meeting him afforded a break from the dry monotony of writing year 9 programs, but because I felt I’d found someone who so totally understood where I was coming from and what I was doing. Not only that, but since Chris has been doing this so much longer than I have, he has met many of the same challenges I’ve encountered while “doing this Youtube thing”, and he has come out the other side more confident and convinced of the value of what we’re doing than ever. That’s really encouraging, because one of the things that plagues every educator who’s breaking new ground (especially with technology) is the constant fear that what you’re investing in is just another fad that will come and go, having shown to provide no substantial value for learning. Seeing Chris a few (or, a lot of) steps ahead of me, and discussing how helpful this has been to various students, cements me in my stance that video is something that has genuine value for teaching and learning. It may not be a silver bullet – nothing is, really – it seems to be authentically useful to people, in the kind of way that makes a technology (like the book, or the chalkboard) stick around.

Which brings me back to why I started writing this post. Something I didn’t expect about my meeting with Chris was that, while we talked plenty about various types of students and how video has been valuable to them, Chris had more of an interest in using video as a learning tool for teachers. This is something that I have only given passing thoughts to before and haven’t dwelled on much, but the more the idea circulated around my head, the more attractive it became. Let me talk you through why.

I’m obviously speaking from the perspective of a maths teacher, but from what I can tell, many of the things I’m about to describe apply more or less to all secondary teachers. (I don’t know enough about primary teaching to make a judgement call, but some of this may be even truer for them than it is for us; I’m just not sure.) Educators need PL the way a room needs open windows; even the best of the first become stale after a while without the second. This need is particularly acute among mathematics teaching, for a number of reasons: (1) critical shortage of effective maths teachers, which has led to (2) a large proportion of retrained teachers from other subjects, which is great but leads to its own problems; and (3) the subject matter is cognitively intense!

(Teachers of other subjects, please don’t hear me saying that other subjects aren’t cognitively intense; anyone who knows me personally and is familiar with my proclivity for the humanities would know that I would never say such a thing. I’m making a statement of fact, not of comparison: maths is just plain hard work for anyone’s brain!)

So the maths teacher population in general needs PL, and it needs it badly. The problem is that maths teachers – not all of them, but a lot of them – don’t want to do it. Why is that? Like most things in the real world it’s complicated, and there is whole range of reasons – but pretty close to the top of the list for most teachers, I think, would be time poverty.

Teachers are famously time-poor people. The vast majority of tasks that a teacher does are bottomless time holes – they aren’t necessarily bad things to do, but they just suck up as much time as you give them and happily ask for more. That exam you’re writing? You can spend more time to make the questions more balanced. Those students who need one-to-one help with troubleshooting questions? You can spend more time with them outside class. The lesson you’re planning? You can spend more time to make the explanation clearer and tie in more closely to the exercises you’ve set. The extra-curricular group that you’re running? You can spend more time researching and implementing new ideas for how to run its activities better.

I could go on and on – and I haven’t even gotten started on the myriad of tasks that a head teacher has to do above and beyond the tasks and responsibilities of a normal teacher (nor have I mentioned those perilous phrases, “having a life” or “raising a family”)! The point is that there are unlimited worthwhile opportunities to spend time on, and only limited time to spend. Everyone has the same 168 hours every week to spend, and no one gets extra to spend. I know schools can spend money to free up their staff to attend PL, and this is a good and necessary step – but it is problematic for a variety of reasons (not least of which is that there is precious little of that money to go around for the amount of PL that needs to be done).

That segues back into my original question. What does online video have to offer that can alleviate this situation? Of course it’s not going to be perfect, and it’s certainly not going to be a substitute for the other kinds of PL that exist out there. They’re all different and they each fit into their own niches. But the more I think about it, the more I think online video has may have something worthwhile to offer. What is that exactly, you say? Well I think this blog post is about long enough right now, so I’m going to end on a cliffhanger and let you stew on the question yourself until I post the next half of my thoughts on this topic!

Twitter beginner

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I’m a bit of a paradox, really. I suppose everyone is in some respect, but I seem to be self-contradictory in a whole variety of ways. (Warning: prepare for stereotypes!) I’m Asian, but I studied no sciences in high school. I went to a selective school, but I became a teacher* (and not in any of the subjects I majored in at school!). I’m Gen Y, but I started a family early. But of particular note to me today is that I’m a technology enthusiast (and generally, an early adopter) – but I’ve only quite recently started using Twitter.

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I was reminded of this fact when I woke up today and noticed I’d passed this milestone (100 followers), which is notable because of how infantile it is. (In the Twittersphere, 100 followers is hardly any. It’d be like a marathon runner celebrating that he’d run 100 metres.) The number is small mainly because it’s a function of how long (and how much) I’ve used the service – which is to say, not very long (or much) at all.

This year I want to change that, since I’m convinced there are real benefits – to be had and to be shared with others! Let’s see how prescient that statement turns out to be.

* That’s a stereotype I’m determined to erode in the years to come. 🙂