The Role of Technology in Education

It would be easy for a self-proclaimed educational technologist to claim that technology is an indispensable component of modern education.

It’s not.

What do you really need to teach a child how to read? You need a child. You need a willing teacher. It’s helpful to have a book. Everything else is superfluous. When I visited Remba Island in Lake Victoria five years ago, I found a “school” crudely built with corrugated steel and chicken wire. There were no doors or windows, just open spaces to let people — and light — in. Children sat at wooden benches on the dirt floor. There was no electricity and no running water. But there was learning. Students were learning about the water cycle in one classroom and arithmetic in another. In this place where I couldn’t open my mouth without ingesting insects, learning was happening. And there wasn’t a computer or a mobile phone or even a digital camera anywhere in sight. There were just committed teachers and students who needed an education.

But we’re in the first world, not the third world. The expectations here are a bit different.

8720604364_85c5931a14_z_d[1]Technology gives us the opportunity to differentiate and personalize learning in unprecedented ways. Computer programs can break content standards down into specific learning targets. Software can assess students, identify their weaknesses, and provide instruction to address those challenges. It can adapt along the way to provide remediation or extension where appropriate, and it can vary the pace of instruction to fit the needs of the learner. Because the student is constantly interacting with the content, the very act of learning becomes continual formative assessment. Teachers can access this data and use it to intervene where appropriate, identifying patterns in student achievement gaps and working to fill them. Because their roles are shifting away from direct instruction, teachers can spend more time interacting with individual and small groups of students, providing the personal attention that was never before possible.

But that’s not the exciting part of technology in education. While everything I’ve described is possible, there are few tools that actually deliver on this promise. And they miss one important fact: this approach is perfectly suited to disseminate content to students, but simply acquiring content is far less important than it was a generation ago.

My parents went to school because school was where the knowledge was. The teacher was the content expert, and if there was anything about biology or Shakespeare or trigonometry that she didn’t know, there was a textbook with all of the answers. The role of the teacher was to share this knowledge with the students, and we called this process education.

Today, the students already have all of the content. It’s in the device they’re carrying around in their pockets. They don’t need to learn about the civil war from the bald guy in the shirt and tie at the front of the room. They can pull up countless primary sources, documentaries, and analyses of every event with just a few keystrokes. The teacher’s job, now, is to help the students make sense of the content. They have to filter, analyze, and synthesize it. They need to be able to combine disparate ideas in new ways, creating new insights that can be applied to the complex problems they’ll face in this century. They have to be able to ask relevant and insightful questions. They need to be able to think critically and creatively about the problems they’re trying to solve. They must be able to articulate their new ideas in both traditional and new ways, and they must do all of this collaboratively, because none of us is smart enough to face these challenges alone.

Technology makes all of this possible. Students use both general and specialized search tools to find the relevant information they need. They use online tools to curate, annotate, and document these resources. They use social networking tools to connect to one another, sharing resources, providing context, and engaging in conversations about the content and their learning. They use cloud-based tools to work together on the creation of documents and presentations. They use media tools to easily record audio, create video, remix content, and make new products. Then, publishing this work to a global audience is trivial. They engage with their audience through comment systems to react to one another’s work. Along the way, they build a personal network of peers — both within and outside the school — that becomes a cohort of life-long learners.

The value of technology in education is not in making things more efficient or less expensive or more engaging. It’s in making new things possible.

Photo Credit: Lucélia Ribeiro on Flickr.

5 Things Teachers Can Do to Save Their Profession

The teaching profession is under attack. The disgruntled parent is gossiping at the coffee house about some injustice done in the classroom. The taxpayer complains that the kids these days aren’t learning anything. Business leaders want to come in and tell the schools how everything should be done. Politicians simultaneously add more accountability measures from public schools while funneling more resources toward alternative education. And no one seems to believe that the teacher in the classroom actually might know what she’s doing.

7403731050_9a1ee480de_zThroughout my career, I’ve heard teachers lamenting the fact that they’re not treated like the professionals they are. Most of them have master’s degrees. They’re licensed professionals. Yet no one seems to take them seriously. Everyone wants to tell them how to do their jobs.

From a parent’s perspective, I have worked with about 50 teachers in three different school districts so far. My kids — currently in 7th and 9th grades — have had some outstanding teachers. And they’ve also had some awful teachers. About half of them were average. They had their strengths and weaknesses. They seemed to have their hearts in the right place, even if they didn’t stand out as stellar educators. Another third or so of their teachers have been horrible. Again, this is across five school buildings in three districts. There are some teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom. I never would have dreamed that it was a third of them, but that’s been my experience so far. The others, that minority of teachers we’re delighted to see years after our students have left their classrooms, are special. They’re the ones who make this whole educational process worth the effort. We need more teachers like that. We need more people who are working to make a positive difference in kids’ lives. We need real professional teachers.

There are some pretty common sense things teachers can do — and not do — to encourage people to take them more seriously and to become the professionals they want to be. Here are five:

Stop complaining that you don’t have time. Yes, I know. You work at home. You have lesson plans to write, and papers to grade. I’m going to avoid the cheap shot of telling you not to make the kids do so many stupid worksheets, and you won’t have to grade them. And I’m not going to focus on three months off, because we all know you don’t really have three months off.

But the teachers in my school district work 186 days a year. That means they have 179 days off. Outside of education, most people work 240-250 days per year. That’s 60 days — a full 12 weeks — more. Sure, teachers work long hours during the school year, but so do doctors and attorneys and anyone putting their MBA to good use. And they don’t get overtime either.

I’m not saying you don’t deserve time off. And I’m not saying you’re not worth it. But let’s give the comments like “I can’t believe we have to come back to school already” and “why can’t spring break be two weeks long?” and “I just don’t have time to put anything else on my plate right now” a rest, shall we?

Know the content that you teach. I’m trained as a math teacher. That means I had more than 30 semester hours of college math, the very first course of which was calculus. If I can’t teach trigonometry or algebra II, I shouldn’t be in the classroom. Honestly, AP Calc and AP Stats shouldn’t be a problem either. The same is true across the content areas. My daughter’s middle school science teacher shouldn’t have fundamental misunderstandings about properties of matter. I realize that you may not have signed up to teach the class you find yourself in now. But you’re a professional, and this is all pretty basic stuff.

If one of my daughters is struggling with content, and that content is wrong, I will tell her it’s wrong. Usually, I’ll say something like “you misunderstood what the teacher said” or “she was trying to simplify it to make you understand better.” But that doesn’t have to happen too many times before the child figures out that I really mean “the teacher doesn’t have any idea what she’s talking about.”

Be an education expert. If I’m in a parent-teacher conference, your eyes shouldn’t glaze over when I mention Bloom’s taxonomy or UBD. You should have a philosophy of education, and it should be evident in your classroom. Your assessments should clearly measure your instructional objectives, and the grades you assign should be an indicator of what the student has learned, not what he has done. You should be able to defend the instructional value of everything you ask your learners to do.

You should not be ASKED to defend everything you ask your learners to do, but there are too many teachers in too many classrooms who aren’t being purposeful and intentional about their craft, and people are starting to ask what the hell is going on in the classroom because no one — including the teacher — seems to know.

I’m often amazed at the things we spend our professional development time on. We need to develop common assessments, because we’re not all on the same page when it comes to measuring student learning. We need to map our curriculum to content standards to make sure that the stuff we’re teaching is actually what we’re supposed to be teaching. We need to learn about professional learning communities, because working collaboratively to provide the best learning environment that we can for students is not something we already know how to do.

It seems like we’re constantly pulling science teachers together to teach them how to teach science. And we have to have a meeting of social studies teachers to go over the new social studies standards. And we need to work on differentiating instruction, because it turns out that our students don’t all learn the same way. And we need a model for intervention, so we’re not totally lost when our students don’t learn something the first time. And now you’re telling me that you want me to use something new and high-tech like the Internet as part of my instructional practice? That’s just going too far.

I think that many objective people looking at professional development schedules and topics might wonder what it is that these professionals are experts in. And they do have a point.

Be the professional you want others to see in you. Dress like a professional. Be organized and prepared and on time. Articulate your ideas clearly. Get rid of the cute fonts that keep people from taking you seriously. Know how to write in complete sentences that have subjects and predicates and verbs that agree and words that are spelled correctly. Use apostrophes and quotation marks where they belong.

Think of any two colleagues. Do you have their names in your mind? One of the three of you really needs to work on your written expression skills. If it’s not immediately apparent which of you it is, it’s probably you. If you need a refresher on basic grammar, ask any third grade teacher or any freshman English teacher to look at your writing. And for God’s sake, proofread your work if it’s going to be read by more than one person. I know you’re in a hurry. It’s worth the extra five minutes to make sure you look like you’re literate.

Be clear in your expectations. Most parents and students want to know one thing: how do I get a good grade in this class? You can eschew grades and assessment all you want, and that’s probably a very good thing. You can have the kids do projects and collaborate and work on activities that demonstrate their learning in all kinds of unique and innovative ways. You can motivate some of your learners to have a passion for the subject of your class, and they’ll do anything for you. But for most, it’s about the grade. If you tell them how to get the grade, and you’re fair about it, things will be much easier for you.

That doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your philosophy of education. It doesn’t mean that you have to compromize your principles or give up on common assessments. But it does mean that you should set reasonable expectations for your students, clearly articulate them, and hold students accountable for them.

One last thing: care. Care about your students. Care about your school. Care about education. This is a noble profession. You’re passing along our civilization, our culture, to the next generation. That’s important work. Take it serously. Love the kids. Prepare them for the world we’re leaving them. And people will treat you like the professional you are.

Photo credit: on Flickr



9068344978_ed1f75bd27_mI have a smartphone. I use it all the time. I get updates through social media, email, and text messages. I use Google to look up any question or topic that I’m curious about. I play music. I track personal statistics, like steps taken and food eaten. My phone is ubiquitous. It’s always there, and it seems like I’m always using it.

My car has a built-in navigation system. When I got it ten years ago, my phone didn’t know how to route me from place to place. But the car does. There’s a map on a screen on the dashboard. I use it all the time. My next car won’t have this, because it’s crazy to pay an extra couple thousand dollars for something my phone can do better. And while the car itself will not have that feature anymore, I don’t think I’ll miss it that much.

I used to wear a watch. All the time. A couple years ago, the battery died. I didn’t notice. That’s when I realized that I didn’t need the watch. I haven’t worn one since. I don’t miss it.

In the Pre-9/11 days, I used to carry a box cutter everywhere. I would joke that I always had it just in case I was reading something interesting in a library somewhere. Then, I could just pull out the knife and cut out the article and take it with me. In reality, I used it all the time for all kinds of things. I stopped carrying it years ago. I don’t often miss it.

We use the things we have. We value the things we carry. Maybe if we didn’t spend quite so much time using the first amendment to protect the second amendment, we would realize that we don’t need to carry weapons with us all the time. And if we stop carrying them, maybe we’ll stop senselessly using them. And maybe — just maybe — we won’t even miss them.

Photo Credit: University of Salford

5 Things We Don’t Agree On

One of the frustrations with the current conversation in public education is that we’re not all talking about the same thing. We’re all experts in education, because we’ve all spent thousands of hours in school. But when it comes to some of the fundamental questions surrounding education, we’re not all on the same page. Here are five things we don’t agree on:

7632212948_5a2ca26f59_n[1]What’s the purpose of education?
Some make the argument that education is all about providing a basic level of literacy to the populace. We should teach our kids to read and write and do basic math. We should give our children the basic skills they need to function in daily life. Others point to career readiness. The point of education is to prepare learners to succeed in real jobs that will give them enough income to live without being a burden on society. Others point to higher education. K-12 education prepares students for college or technical school, which in turn prepares students to get good jobs.  A few idealists point to lofty goals like passing along our culture — our civilization — to the next generation, or to creating an informed, functional citizenry. But your view of education, including the degree to which the U.S. system is successful, will depend on which lens you’re using.

What do we mean by “learning”?
When I was a kid, we were told that knowledge is power. If you have the information, and you control access to information, you’re more powerful than those who don’t. That may still be true to a degree, but for the most part, everyone has the information now. If school is all about disseminating content to children, we’re wasting our time. They already have the content. Now, what can we do with that content?

We’re moving further up the Bloom’s pyramid than we give ourselves credit for. But if we want to measure this kind of learning, we have to ask better questions. We have to challenge students to think in new ways, to combine ideas from different areas, and to create something new. If you want to measure whether students have developed their problem solving skills, you have to give them problems that they haven’t seen the solution to. I’m not sure our high-stakes testing and assessment system will let that happen.

What’s the right balance between local and centralized control of education?
Whenever we don’t like something we’re being told to do, we drag out the old “local control” argument. Traditionally, education has been a local responsibility. We decide what to teach our kids, and how to do it. The government stays out of it. At the same time, though, we seem to welcome centralized standardization when we agree with it. If you have too much local control, then you find creationism showing up in the science curriculum, global warming being taught as a debateable theory, and any novel that encourages students to think and speak for themselves being labeled as subversive trash. The common core is not a bad thing, and most people who object to it actually object to the way it’s measured more than the standards themselves. If we do have standards, we ought to be able to leverage collaboration to make implementation easier for all of us. Part of the friction here comes from fundamental disagreements on some of the questions I’ve already mentioned.

Whose responsibility is education?
This is different from the last question. In the 19th century, American communities decided that it was the responsibility of the community to create and support local schools for the education of their children. Education was entirely local and community-driven. As time has gone on, the community has assumed a smaller role. Education is the government’s responsibility. Education is the parent’s responsibility. Now we end up in all of these convoluted strategies to try to make education relevant to the community as a whole. “Why should I vote for the school levy? My children are grown. I’m on a fixed income. I can’t afford higher taxes.” We need to invest in education because it’s the right thing to do. We need to invest in education because it will benefit our society and our country in the long term. There’s no short term return on investment. Support schools for the same reason that you still plant trees, even though you may not live to see them fully grown. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, grandparent, child, or community member, education is YOUR responsibility.

How does the U.S. stack up against other countries?
Education in the United States is better now than it has ever been. That’s not news. It doesn’t generate the same response as the reports claiming our kids don’t know basic math or that Finland provides a better education at a fraction of the price. But if our schools are changing — if we really are re-examining what we mean by “education” — then the scores our students earn on traditional knowledge-based tests are not going to improve. If we look at the tests that we’re using to measure students around the world, I don’t think we’ll find that our students are doing worse than other countries on the things we actually care about. Which takes us back to the questions on purpose and learning.

We skip these questions. Even in conversations about Next Generation schools. Even in discussions about appropriate professional development programs to transform learning. Even in deep, thoughtful reflections on what we’re doing in public education. We can spin our wheels around these things for hours without getting anywhere. But until we start agreeing on the basic parameters of what we’re talking about, we’re not going to get anywhere.

Photo credit: NikitaY on Flickr.

5 Password Recommendations

We’ve been a little more proactive lately about suggesting that people change their passwords from time to time. Usually, passwords are the annoying step standing between us and our data. We use them so often, and they’re so familiar, that we can become careless about them. Here are five recommendations for better passwords.

Email passwords are really important. In most cases, password resets can be done through email. If you go to Facebook, for example, and tell them you forgot your password, you can reset it if you have access to the email account tied to the Facebook one. The same is true for most online services. If you have access to email, you can get access to almost every account tied to that email address. So your email password should be among your most heavily guarded.

Be careful about tying accounts together. It’s really tempting to use that “Login with Facebook” or “Login with Google Plus” link on that neat web site you want to try out so you don’t have to set up a separate account. But be careful doing that. In some cases, you may be making connections between those accounts that you don’t want. Maybe I don’t need Facebook to know that I’m using this tool. Or maybe I don’t want this new tool to be posting things on my Facebook wall. While the promise of one login for everything is really attractive, make sure you understand how the data moves between the sites, and what you’re giving them permission to do.

Change your passwords. The old adage is that your password is like your underwear. Don’t leave them lying around. Change them once in a while. Don’t share them with friends. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, passwords get out. Maybe there was malware on a computer you used. Maybe some web site got hacked and was storing passwords in a format that made it possible to steal them. Maybe someone saw you type in a password and figured it out. If you change your password once in a while, you reduce the possibility that someone will be able to exploit one of these kinds of indiscretions. It’s also a good idea to use different passwords on each site, and a password manager to keep track of them all. That way, if one of your passwords does get out, it doesn’t give the attacker access to all of your online accounts.

Complicated passwords are good passwords. If someone can guess your password, they can become you online. Computer programs can be written to guess passwords, and they’re really fast. A “brute force” attack tries every possible password until it hits on the right one. There are products available that can try 3 million passwords per second. You want a long password that’s not easy to guess.

Let’s take a very simple case. Suppose your password is one character long, and that it’s a number. If I’m trying to guess your password, there are only 10 possible passwords for you to have. So it will be very easy for me to guess it. Now, suppose instead that your password can be a letter or a number. Now, there are 36 possible passwords. That’s a little better. But what if we use both lower-case and upper-case letters, as well as numbers and punctuation symbols? A quick look at my keyboard shows 95 possible values. This gets really powerful as the length of the password increases. So a standard 4-character pin that you would use to access your ATM or open your garage door would have 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 = 10000 possible values. But if it could include all 95 characters on the keyboard, it would have 95 x 95 x 95 x 95 = 81450625 possible values. That’s a lot harder to guess. There’s a whole science called information entropy behind all this if you’re interested.

And if you make it a long password, that’s even better. An 8-character password is 95 times as good as a 7-character password. If you want a pretty good password, try using a passphrase instead. If I use “Four score and 7 years ago!” as my password, I have a 27-character password that includes uppercase, lowercase, numbers, and punctuation. While it’s still not a fantastic password because of the dictionary words, it’s a lot better than the name of your cat, or your child’s birthday. Plus, it’s easy to remember.

All passwords suck. Passwords are a holdover from a time when we didn’t have such fantastic computing power. We’re at the point now where just about any password can be cracked if given enough time and resources. And because passwords must be remembered and entered frequently, we tend to use some of the easier-to-guess ones. If I use “MfABKSsnaQVDcdgIIpityTxX2yn” as my 27-character password instead of the opening of the Gettysburg Address, it’s much less likely to be guessed. But I’m also much less likely to remember it.

Ultimately, we’re going to reach the point where computing power is so advanced that any password that provides even a modest amount of security will be too cumbersome and impractical to actually use. To solve that problem, we’ll need multi-factored authentication. You really have that now. Think back to the ATM example I mentioned earlier. What’s to keep someone from walking up to an ATM machine and guessing your password? After all, there are only 10,000 combinations of four digits. It’s not very secure at all. The reason ATM cards don’t get hacked all the time is that you have to actually have the card to use the password. The authentication has two factors: something you have (the card) and something you know (the pin). To get access to the account, you have to have both.

On my Google account, I have two-factor authentication turned on. If someone tries to log in to my Gmail account, it sends a text message to my phone with a six-digit code. I have to type that code in to the web browser to log in. That way, I have to know my password, but I also have to prove that I have access to my cell phone. It’s a little less convenient, but it’s a lot more secure.

Proving who you are online is difficult, and it’s getting harder. But being diligent about password management can help you avoid identity theft problems.

Photo credit: Lulu Hoeller on Flickr.

5 Things to Do Next

Now comes the hard part. Learning doesn’t mean anything unless we can put it into practice. Sure, we went to Educon. We were inspired. We saw some really neat models of how real teachers and real students are working in real schools to build a better world. Then we came home. And there was email to answer, and neglected tasks to be completed. There were problems to follow up on and fires to put out. The immediacy of impending projects is looming. So it’s easy to get caught up in the work, to become absorbed by the daily to-do list and the email deluge and the urgency of the moment. The time for all of the dreaming of a better world has passed. It’s time to get back to work.

4022566308_855b9c8934[1]But before we lose the spirit of the experience, I want to nail down a few to-do list items. These aren’t necessarily big steps. And they’re probably not useful to anyone but me. But it is a roadmap for moving forward.

Meet with the Team and Form a Plan
In truth, this is already done. One of the advantages of driving from Cleveland to Philadelphia is that we have to spend 7 hours together driving home. We talked about the experience, and we formed some tentative plans to move forward. Two of the four people on the team had never attended Educon before. In some ways, it was overwhelming for them. I think we’e worked through some of that, and have boiled down the experience into some concrete action plans that we put into place over the next year or two.

For me, it’s exciting to see others in the district thinking along the same lines, working to introduce more inquiry, relevance, and Next Generation approaches to the classes in our schools. I’m thrilled that everyone who attended the conference is as excited about this as I am.

Nail the PD Plan
We’ve been working on a plan for professional development for months now. We have a pretty good idea of what we want to do. The focus is on pedagogy. We’re going to use a badge system to validate learning, and tie that system to the LPDC system and to graduate workshop credit. We want to have several topics, with three levels for each one. So you could become an expert in one area, or a novice in three areas, and get the same credit. But we still need to work out the details. What are the criteria for each badge? How do we identify and assess the learning targets? How will the PD be delivered? Which topics are most critical, and need to come first? What role does technology play in all of this? We have the broad strokes. Now it’s time to fill in the details.

Fix my PLN Problem
All my peeps are on Twitter. But I don’t read Twitter. Maybe I need to reduce the number of people I’m following. Maybe I need to change the way I interact with the Twitter feeds. Maybe I need to follow more lists and hash tags. Maybe I need to find another way to interact with my learning community. But for the past year, I’ve been largely disconnected, and it’s time to re-engage.

Move Forward on 1:1
Last year, we formalized a plan to move to a 1:1 program beginning in 2015. So far, we’re on track. If the funding holds, we should be able to move to laptops for teachers this year. At the same time, we can prepare to move from classroom sets of devices for students to a real 1:1 program. That will probably include a pilot for student 1:1 next year. Bigger than that is the work with teachers to prepare them. If we spend all this money and time and effort on technology, and nothing changes in the classroom, we’re wasting our time.

Adopt a New LMS
We have been using Moodle for a long time. But we have had very little adoption of it. Our ability to support it is limited. Teachers have found it confusing. Upgrading is tedious and tends to break things. While the price is attractive, it’s clearly not meeting our needs anymore. One of the most popular features of Moodle is the ability to deliver assessments. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the least efficient aspects of the program, and when a teacher has 30 kids all taking assessments at the same time, the server slows to a crawl.

We’ve been talking about replacing Moodle for a long time, and we’ve been struggling to reach consensus on the best tool. I think we are at a point where we know what the tool is. The challenge now is finding a way to pay for it. But having a functional LMS is critical for our NextGen efforts, both as a way to organize and deliver content for students, and as a way to structure professional development.

If we can get all of that done this spring, I’ll be thrilled. It’s an ambitious plan, and there’s not really anything coming OFF the plate. But this is the direction forward. I have a great team to work with on it, and we’re going to make this work.

Photo credit: Ramkarthikonblogger on Flickr.