Do We Need Teachers?

A couple months ago, I surveyed the teachers in my district about classroom technology. Over the last few years, we have focused a lot on improving student access to technology. While this has meant unprecedented growth in tech resources available to students, it also means we haven’t devoted much time or resources on the technology that our teachers use.

Edsger Dijkstra, 1994 in Zurich
Edsger Dijkstra, 1994 in Zurich

One problem with surveys like this is that you can’t really ask people what they want. The answer to “Would _____ help improve student learning in your classroom?” is “YES!”. It doesn’t really matter what goes in the blank.

The other problem with surveying staff is that they generally want what they already have. Educational technology is always about MORE stuff. We don’t want to talk about taking things away, even if they’re no longer useful.

With this in mind, I asked a lot of questions about teachers’ attitudes toward technology. If I know how they see the role of tech in their classroom, I can better look for solutions that foster that role. So I asked questions like this (all of these are rated on a “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” scale):

Technology helps students become more independent learners.
Technology helps personalize learning for students.

Technology helps students develop a deeper understanding of course content.
Technology helps students demonstrate their learning in innovative ways. Technology improves students’ ability to collaborate.
Technology improves students’ access to course content.
Technology could be used to replace teachers someday.

Many of these are questions I asked sixth grade students and parents earlier in the spring, as they came to the end of the first year of our 1:1 program. The teachers, like the students and the parents, are right where we would hope they would be. For the most part, they genuinely believe that technology fosters independent, personalized learning. It helps engage students and gives them ways to express their creativity and collaborate to deepen their understanding of the topics studied in school, and to demonstrate that learning in unique ways. Yay us! We’re on the right track.

It’s that last item that got me in trouble.

In all fairness, I knew it would. I shared the survey with several people before sending it, and they all pointed it out. Nobody actually contacted me in protest about the question, but I heard through the grapevine that several teachers were insulted and upset that I would even ask such a thing.

replace teachersBut my point is this: we’ve been asking why students still come to school for almost a decade now. When my parents went to school, it was because that’s where the knowledge was. The teachers were the experts on every subject, and the textbooks were the ultimate authority. Any question that the teachers couldn’t answer and that wasn’t in the book wasn’t worth knowing.

That world is gone. Our students have all of the information in their pockets. School has to be more than just delivering content. They need to find, filter, evaluate, analyze, synthesize, and apply that knowledge. They need to combine ideas from different domains and use it in creative ways to solve challenging, real problems. They have to think critically and work collaboratively to face the unprecedented challenges of their generation.

That’s good news. If school WERE just about delivering content, we could easily automate it, and we would all be looking for jobs. We might still need adults to monitor student progress through prescribed online curricula, but they certainly wouldn’t need teaching degrees. Fortunately for all of us, school is more than that.

So in the classroom, the technology has to do more than deliver content. We have to get away from the idea that we’re doing whole group instruction most of the time. We have to eschew the concept of “school” as a model where 20 children sit in rows and face a teacher who stands by the board and talks for an hour at a time. We have to embrace the idea that teachers are regularly using formative assessments to adapt instruction to the needs of each learner. We have to acknowledge that students in a single class may be doing four or five different things. We need to be aware that it’s not enough to just know the facts. There has to be an application or reflection component to learning.

For the most part, our teachers seem to know that. But I needed them to use that lens when thinking about the technology needs for their classrooms. Maybe it’s not all about projectors and interactive whiteboards and using document cameras to share workbook pages. We need to re-tool to design our classrooms for more than simple content delivery. I’m not sure yet exactly what those needs are going to be moving forward. But I’m pretty sure it will be different from what we’ve had the last ten years.

And despite their concerns about being replaced by robots, our teachers know that too.


Photo Credit: :Edsger Dijkstra, from Wikipedia.


No Moore

Moore’s Law is dead. co-founder Gordon Moore observed in 1965 that the number of components on an integrated circuit was doubling every year. He predicted that this growth would continue for another decade. In 1975, he revised the forecast to every two years.

In simpler terms, it can be said that computing power doubles about every two years, while the cost remains the same. Incredibly, this exponential rate of growth held true for more than 40 years. For the most part, you could expect that the computers available at any given time were about twice as powerful as those two years prior, while the cost was about the same. All told, computing chips available now are more than 2 billion times as powerful as those available in 1965, while the cost is about the same.

Our entire understanding of how technology works is based on this model. If it’s more than a couple years old, it’s probably time to replace it. In schools, we use Moore’s Law as a guideline for everything from planning replacement schedules to estimating depreciation. We replace desktop computers every six years. That’s the point at which they’ve lost about 90% of their value. It was predictable. We could plan for it. We could budget for it.

I got my first smartphone in 2010. I replaced it in 2012. That one would have been replaced in 2014 if I hadn’t dropped it in 2013. I’m making this third one last an extra year to get back on track, but it’s definitely showing its age now.

But Moore’s law is dead. Even the chip manufacturers have acknowledged as much. We’re still going to see growth in computing power, but that growth is going to be slower and less predictable. What’s that going to mean for schools? Lots of things: will keep computers longer.
We have to get over the idea that computers that are a few years old are too out of date to do anything useful. Most of the computers in our classrooms are now eight years old, and it’ll probably be another year before we replace them. It’s not that we’re trying to be cheap or that we don’t want to be cutting edge. The reality is that they still do most of what we need them to do, and we’d rather use technology resources to improve access for students.

We have to worry about durability.
When we bought the Acer netbooks in 2012, we expected to keep them for three years. We knew there would be problems with broken keyboards and cracked screens, but they were half the cost of desktop computers. If we could get three years out of them, we could leverage their mobility and still come out ahead.

But as we head into year five, those weak batteries and poorly designed keyboards are becoming more of a problem. While any life we continue to get out of them is just icing on the cake at this point, it’s a shame to throw them away when they still work fairly well. We’ll take the worst ones out of commission and use them for parts, and we’ll limp along for another year before retiring them. But as we move forward, we need to think about holding on to these things for more years. Build quality and durability will become more important, and we will have less patience for planned obsolescence.

Software will have to be more efficient.
In the early days, computer engineers were all about efficiency. They were working with some pretty tough constraints, and they would spend a lot of time working through performance and resource challenges. That art has largely been lost in the last generation. Applications use more memory / processing power / storage space to do the same things, because those resources have been unlimited for so long. There’s no reason why I should need 8 gb of ram in my computer to run a web browser and a terminal session. But I do because the software is developed without any consideration for hardware limitations.

When Windows Vista came out, there weren’t any computers on the market that could run it. In fact, Microsoft changed the certification from “Vista Ready” to “Vista Capable” so they could actually certify computers to run the new operating system. Within a few months, the hardware caught up, and soon just about everything could run Vista (whether they wanted to or not). The same thing is happening right now with the Oculus Rift. Very few computers meet the system requirements. So the early adopters have to buy new hardware, while everyone else will just have to wait for the industry to catch up.

But in a world where those hardware upgrades are NOT just around the corner, the software developers are going to have to find better ways to improve their products without boosting the system requirements beyond reach.

Costs are going to rise.
I expect costs to go down. That’s how we fuel sustainability. In 2011, we had 3 computing devices for every 7 students. Today, we have 11 computing devices for every 7 students. Over the same period, the school district has received no increase in funding. We’re not bringing in more money, and we’re not spending more money. We have moved things around a little. We’re spending a little less on textbooks, and a little more on computers. But for the most part, the financial side has been pretty flat.

The difference has been the cost of computing devices. When we started buying classroom sets of laptops, we were paying about half as much as we were for desktops. When we started buying Chromebooks, we halved that cost again. We didn’t spend less money, but we bought a lot more devices and improved student access to technology considerably. That, in turn, allowed teachers to better leverage technology to design instruction that meets the individual needs of each learner.

But this year, when I placed my order for Chromebooks for the incoming sixth graders, two things surprised me. First, the specs on the new devices are identical to those from last year. There’s no more memory or storage or processing power. The device is exactly the same as last year. Second, the price hasn’t dropped. Usually, if I buy something for $350 one year, I expect it to be $240 the next. Not this year. The new devices are a few dollars cheaper, but innovation has stalled and pricing is staying the same. That means the whole industry is slowing down. While the longer life cycles are going to help us keep technology longer, the cost stability is going to offset any savings we might have had.

The biggest change is going to be the mindset. The promise that there’s something newer and better right around the corner is a myth. We have to get over our fascination with the new and shiny, and focus a little more on doing great things with the amazing technology we already have.

Photo credits:
Moore’s law chart by shigeru23 from WikiMedia Commons
Silicon Photonics 300mm wafer by Ehsanshahoseini from WikiMedia Commons



The Change is Here

The change that is happening in the middle grades right now continues to astound me.

Eighteen months ago, our sixth grade teachers asked that we get rid of the carts of computers in their classrooms and just assign devices to the kids. It’s a small shift, really. Instead of having a set of computers in every classroom, we now have a computer in each student’s hands. But what a difference it makes.

DSC_0854-aWhen we say that we want technology to be ubiquitous, this is what we’re talking about. When it’s needed, it’s there. It starts up quickly, it has a great battery life, and technology problems are minimal. The students have them in study hall and at home and on the bus. When it’s not needed, it’s turned off and moved out of the way.

So, yes, students use their devices to access online resources. Some of those are the curated materials selected for them by their teachers and textbook publishers. Some are the results of Google searches and Wikipedia browsing. They’re learning how to evaluate the credibility of those sources. In most cases, they’re much better at it than their grandparents are.

But they’re also using the technology to take ownership of their learning. Teachers are giving more choice, but they’re also tailoring instruction to the needs of each learner. Quick formative assessments are used to assess the needs of the class, and plans are dynamically adjusted to best meet those needs. That’s the big challenge in the middle grades, and the biggest reason why middle school has traditionally been so awful for so many people.

Next, students are collaborating  on creative projects to show evidence of their learning. They’re not just writing essays and putting together PowerPoint presentations. They’re making videos and infographics and simulations using tools that I don’t understand. They’re discovering how to write for different audiences and how to use multimedia to best convey their message. They’re combining knowledge from different domains and applying it to real problems.

And while they’re doing all of this in their science social studies classes, they’re also improving their technology skills, working harder on schoolwork, and having fun in the process.

So when I asked 12-year-old students why they like the 1:1 program, they responded with things like this:

  • I can personalize my work they way I want it and it helps us become independent learners.
  • When I need assistance, my fellow students and teachers are there to assist me; whether it consists technology help, or homework help. The 1:1 program helped me with achieving my school goals.
  • It helps us learn about the digital world and helps us become independent learners.
  • It gives you a chance to learn more, and do what you can’t on paper at school, while with the 1:1 program, you can do both electronic learning and non-electronic learning
  • The learning is fit for me and I feel that I can learn more things in a shorter span of time than I could before.
  • I’m able to chat or video chat my friends to talk about homework problems that I’m confused on.

If you want to see all of the results, including responses from parents and many colorful and encouraging graphs, they’re here.

So this week, we’ll collect the Chromebooks for the summer. When the students come back in August, we’ll give them back. We’ve been working with the seventh grade teachers for most of the school year to get them ready for this. For the most part, I think they’re ready. Then, we’re going to start working with the eighth grade teachers.

But the high school has no idea what’s coming.