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Failing to Decide

It’s hard to keep up with educational technology. Every week, it seems like there’s some new product that promises to revolutionize the way we teach kids, and save our civilization from the perils of a failed education system.

While much of this is snake oil purveyed by charlatans preying on the fears of a public nostalgic for “good old days” that never really existed, there actually are some technologies that can improve both the process and the results of public education.

We separate the wheat from the chaff though a constant cycle of evaluation. When a new technology emerges that shows promise, we begin with exploration. This usually involves trying the technology in a variety of configurations and contexts to see if it solves a problem we’re struggling with. If the technology shows promise, we move on to a pilot phase, where different options are tried and compared before standardizing on a solution to be widely implemented.

Here’s an example: about ten years ago, interactive whiteboards were all the rage. Teachers were excited about them. Vendors were calling. Grants were starting to be written. It became clear that we were moving toward a wide adoption. For the first couple years, we bought all kinds of different solutions. We tried the Promethian, Smart, Mimeo, and Interwrite solutions. We tried boards that require a stylus and those that don’t. We tried the slate approach, where the teacher controls the projected image from a tablet. We bought and installed several different solutions. After a year or so, we came together to reach consensus. The SMART Board was selected as the product of choice, and then a phased implementation began. Once the decision was made, it only took about three years to get them in most of our classrooms. We now have a consistent solution that meets the needs of our teachers while still being standardized enough to make support and maintenance practical.

The iPad is another example. It generated a lot of interest in schools when it was first introduced, and we bought lots of them to see how they could best be used. We also bought some Android tablets, Kindles, and Nooks, and even looked at the Windows tablets that were available at the time. Within a year, we had standardized on the iPad, developed a procedure for configuring and managing them, and figured out that they’re best used with developing readers and in targeted interventions. While the management process is not exactly smooth, we do at least have some consistency that makes things a lot easier for everyone.

When it comes to Learning Management Systems (LMS), though, we missed the boat. An LMS is a digital representation of the classroom.  When students enter a traditional classroom, they walk into a familiar environment centered on routine and consistency. They know where to sit. They know where to turn in their homework. They know where upcoming assignments and homework are listed. They can see the schedule of upcoming topics and learning objectives. There’s a place to celebrate excellent student work. In an online space, students can easily get lost. They may have to go to an online textbook hosted on one site, complete assignments someplace else, and take tests and assessments in a third tool. To complicate things, different teachers might use completely different systems, resulting in a lot of frustration for students and parents.

We could have fixed this, but we didn’t. I didn’t. We started off fine. We were in the exploration phase. We used Manhattan Virtual Classroom for a year or two before trying out Moodle in 2002.  We did some training on Moodle, and some teachers really jumped on board. But we never went further than that. Some people moved to WordPress. Others made web sites and used other resources that filled some of the needs of an LMS. Teachers chose the solution that worked best for them, or they chose none at all.

Eventually, we wound up with so many different approaches that it was impossible to keep track of them, let alone try to provide support. We still have some teachers using Moodle. Others are using Schoology or Canvas or Google Classroom. Some have web sites, created in WordPress or Blogger or Google Sites or Microsoft Publisher. Some teachers use email to keep their students informed. Others use Twitter or Facebook.  I commented at the beginning of 2014 that failing to standardize on an LMS was one of the biggest things holding us back.

So a year ago, we set out to change that. But the regular evaluation process didn’t work. The list of essential characteristics for an LMS was so comprehensive and contradictory that nothing fit the bill. To make things worse, most of the teachers involved in the process had already spent an extraordinary amount of time in the tool they’ve been using. So almost everyone was biased in favor of keeping his or her own solution and getting everyone else to standardize on it.

The solution came from an unlikely source. Earlier this year, I attended a software demo for a different product which included an overview of the Virtual Classroom LMS. This is a new product the fully integrates with our gradebook and student records systems (Progress Book). Made by the same company, it’s really the only LMS that can automatically create assignments in both the gradebook and the LMS at the same time, and transfer grades between the two systems automatically.

On the instruction side, it hits the highlights. Teachers can collect and organize resources, and can collaborate in that process. Teachers can also co-teach sections of courses, and those resources can be assigned to whole classes or groups of students. Some assessments can be automatically graded. Navigation is intuitive for students. And since it’s an extension of the gradebook software teachers have been using for years, the learning curve shouldn’t be very steep.

It’s still a very new product. That means that all of the features we’d like to see aren’t there yet. But it also means that the company is open to suggestions and we should have a significant voice in product development as one of the early adopters.

There’s still a long road ahead. Some of the teachers are resentful that they’re going to have to switch products. Full implementation will probably take a few years. And change is difficult everywhere. But at least we finally have a decision and we can move forward.

And I’ve learned not to wait too long between exploration and adoption.

Photo credit: Nicholas Mutton on Wikimedia Commons.

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New and Improved

I am not an early adopter.

By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsI used to be cutting edge. I’d download and install beta software. I would pine for the latest gadgets. I was firmly in the camp that believed in the latest AND greatest. Newer is always better. That’s what we mean by “progress.”

But the new thing almost always has a dark side. The new version of Microsoft Office has no new features that you actually care about, but you have to upgrade so people stop complaining that you’re running a ten-year-old program. So you upgrade, knowing full well that you have to double the system resources needed to do the same things you’ve always done. Next month, we’re killing Windows XP in our district. It’s not that XP doesn’t do what we need. It’s not even that XP is hopelessly insecure or unreliable. The problem is that we need to have a limit on the number of configurations we support at a time, and we can’t start getting ready for Windows 10 until we stop using XP and can deprecate the eight servers we currently have supporting it.

Sometimes “new” can be very bad. When iOS 8 was released last fall, hundreds of iPads in our district got notices that there was a new, fancy, pretty software update. Some of our users updated and immediately found that they couldn’t use some of their apps, they couldn’t access the wireless network, and they couldn’t go back to the version they had before. The 8.0.1 update released a week later made things worse, and both 8.2 and 8.3 subsequently introduced new problems.

This spring, we have been evaluating Chromebooks. They’ve been around for a few years, and most of the initial problems with them have been worked out. We looked at all of the available models, and identified five that we wanted to evaluate. We bought three of each in mid-February, and went through a fairly extensive evaluation process, where each sixth grade teacher tried each Chromebook model for a week while we also solicited feedback from administrators, parents, and students. Midway through the process, we found that one of them had been completely redesigned. So we bought the new model. By the time we were ready to get quotes for a purchase, we found that all of the devices we had been evaluating were discontinued. In at least two cases, the replacements had slower processors and shorter battery life. Sometimes “better” means “more profitable.”

Technology makes amazing things possible. I really do believe that we can leverage technology to meet the individual needs of each learner, and to provide a relevant curriculum that fosters innovation, problem solving, communication skills, and collaboration. I am confident that technology can make school relevant again, and that it’s probably our only hope for saving public education.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to jump on the latest bandwagon or gulp down the snake oil. We have to be careful, methodical, and measured. We just have to do all of that very quickly, because an upgrade is coming.

Image credit: Famartin on Wikimedia Commons.

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Fostering Independence

“The purpose of teaching a child is to enable the child to get along without the teacher.”

In elementary school, we have a lot of structure. We line up a lot. We go to the restroom and to art and to the cafeteria as a group. Academically, we do a lot of things together. Even in centers, most students move through the whole rotation, so everyone does the same thing more-or-less within the same time period.

A big part of this approach is practical. We need to keep track of the students and make sure everyone is safe. We have to make sure all students have a basic foundation of literacy and general knowledge. Schools can be cultures of anxiety for young students who may have never been away from home for so long, so often. So routine and predictability are key components of school that put them at ease.

8722487167_94ac5118b6_zAs students get older, they gain autonomy. They may have different teachers for reading and math. They use hall passes to independently use the restroom when necessary. They do more work at home. In middle school, they start to have choices about the classes they take, adding instrumental music or a world language. Once they get to high school, they’re largely on their own. We still have bell schedules and keep students accountable, but it’s a far cry from the “line up to visit the drinking fountain” days.

As a school district, we’ve had a lot of conversations over the last few years about what our student technology model should look like. As technology has become more powerful, less expensive, and more mobile, the conventional wisdom about school technology has become less conventional. For more than a decade, our model was to have a computer in every classroom, and (roughly) a computer lab for every 200-300 students. A few years ago, this changed as we started adding classroom sets of laptops to support new curriculum adoptions. The computers were suddenly in the classroom, where the learning was happening. They were more flexible and more mobile. Since 2012, we’ve nearly tripled the number of computers in the district, and moved from a model that was 20% mobile to one that’s 80% mobile.

We knew when we started that we would eventually reach the point where the number of computers exceeded the number of students, and have long debated about what to do at that point. Do we embrace a 1:1 model and issue a device to each student? Do we move to a BYOD approach, where each student is responsible for bringing his or her own technology? Do we keep classroom sets of devices in every classroom? It wasn’t until this year that we finally figured it out.

At the elementary level, school is very structured. The technology should reflect that. Computers are maintained in every classroom. Everyone has the same device, configured the same way. The standardized, predictable approach reduces the teachers’ and students’ anxiety about using the technology. It helps them move on quickly to the learning without spending so much time focusing on the tech.

As students get older, they gain greater autonomy. Now, instead of having a set of computers in every classroom, the computer is issued to the student. As they enter middle school, they take responsibility for the device. It’s still a computer purchased and supported by the school. There’s still a consistency in the hardware and software platform that allows us to reasonably support it. Teachers know what their students’ devices can and cannot do. But now the student can take the device home. They can work on school projects and pursue personal interests with it. They have some control over their computing environment, but the much of the structure is still in place.

As the students move into high school, they gain even more independence. They’re more aware of their learning and technology needs. They have a better idea of which technologies work for them, and they’ve developed their own preferences and tastes. This is the point at which they bring their technology to their learning. They take responsibility for the tech, and the school simply provides the necessary infrastructure to help them use it for learning. At this point, their technology use has become fully independent.

So that’s the plan. We’re doing classroom sets of computers at the elementary level. The computers stay in the classroom. Media specialists address information literacy and technology skills with the students, and they work with the teachers on technology integration and professional development. As the students move into middle school, they’re issued a device through our 1:1 program, which they keep as long as they’re in middle school. The technology integration coach works with the teachers, and technology skills are embedded in classroom instruction. Classes increasingly use blended methodologies that extend learning and foster collaboration. When students move to high school, they bring their own technology to their learning. Their technology use is independent, and they’re comfortable moving between online and face to face environments. They’ve become independent learners and independent technology users.

And they don’t need their teachers anymore.

Photo credit: Lucélia Ribeiro on Flickr.