In Pursuit of Tech Standards

The Ohio Department of Education is soliciting feedback through December 31 on their new Technology Learning Standards. [Update (1/12/16): many of the links are now broken, but the new standards are here.]

This is frustrating. And, largely, meaningless.

The new standards are a revision of the 2003 Academic Content Standards for Technology (another link here, since the ODE one is going to break soon). The 2003 standards were a monumental exercise in compromise. They were essentially based on the original ISTE Standards from 1998. But because “technology” has many different definitions, and a8720604364_85c5931a14_zt the time, there was a lot of money available to schools wanting to improve the ways they use technology in schools, everyone wanted in on the action. The industrial technology folks pushed to include more standards related to CAD, CNC, robotics, and manufacturing. The digital arts proponents wanted standards for digital and graphic design. The business department saw technology through the productivity lens, and lobbied for so-called computer literacy and productivity standards. The media folks saw the information literacy train coming, and jumped on board. The result was a 360-page behemoth that was impossible to implement.

It was interesting, at the time, that we had technology standards at all. Beginning with the SchoolNet Plus program in 1995, the state’s goal was to integrate technology into the classroom. Every conversation focused on instructional integration. Funding was provided for CLASSROOM technology, and schools were emphatically discouraged from building computer labs and other structures that separated the technology from classroom instruction. So it was odd that these technology standards came along at the end of the Academic Content Standards era. Tech hadn’t been included in the Language Arts standards or Math standards or Science standards. Despite the stated objective of integrating tech, they didn’t actually do it when writing the standards.

digifest-digital-screenSo while we were unwrapping standards and mapping assessments and trying to come to terms with the idea that all schools should be teaching the same thing in fifth grade math, technology was added on. These standards were tied to funding through the e-rate process. Schools were forced to explain in their technology plans how technology integration was being accomplished at every grade grade level in every subject area. Our district may have included some snarky responses in this area, especially when explaining how we were integrating technology into middle school physical education (we weren’t) and elementary foreign language (a subject we don’t teach).

To say the least, it was an uphill battle. Schools were rated based on reading and math scores. Those tests measured student achievement of the standards in those areas, which did not include technology. We were assured that technology would be fully integrated into the next generation of academic content standards. In the meantime, we would do what we could to prepare our students for success in our technology-rich culture without actually requiring anyone to use any technology anywhere.

So when the new content standards came along in 2010, they should have finally included the technology components that we’ve been talking about integrating into the core subject areas for a generation now. Finally, we’re going to make sure our students have the technology skills they need. We’re going to embed them in the core subjects, and we’re going to use them to help differentiate instruction, improve student collaboration and communication skills, and increase the academic rigor of our academic programs. Our students will increasingly analyze and synthesize content from multiple sources, and will use their critical thinking skills to combine knowledge in new ways to solve complex problems.

Except that they may have forgotten to include technology in the new standards. Again.

So, here we are. We’re developing new tech standards. We’re basing those standards on Ohio’s ridiculous 2003 standards, instead of building on the national and international work that’s been done in the last 20 years. We reduced the number of standards to make it easier to implement them. We are making them intentionally vague so schools can claim to be implementing them without actually having to change anything they’re already doing. We will push these standards out to the schools with no support and no directive to use them. And we’ll wonder why there’s not a common set of technology standards implemented across the state with fidelity. We’ll complain that our students don’t have the skills they need to compete internationally. We’ll talk about how irrelevant our schools are. All of the kids in school now will grow up and graduate and they’ll be replaced with a new set of students looking to us to prepare them for their future.

Then, we’ll do it again.

Photo Credit: Lupuca on Flickr.
Photo Credit: JISC and Matt Lincoln.

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4 Reasons Why Google is Bad for Education

One of the disconcerting aspects of my role in education is that I always need to be thinking a couple steps ahead. In many cases, this means looking deep enough into the crystal ball to see the decline of technologies we’re just starting to use. I’ve written in the past about how 1:1 programs may not be the final answer, even as we continue to move toward them. I’ve also realized that learning management systems, like Moodle, Schoology, and Edmodo, are probably bad ideas in the long run, even as we continue to promote and encourage their use now. In both of these cases, the pedagogical transformation that comes from their adoption is invaluable. So we can’t just skip to the next step.

When it comes to Google, I’m torn. Their collection of tools (primarily Gmail, Docs, and Calendar) has had a tranformational effect on many of our practices, both in and out of the classroom. The collaborative features in Docs make it possible for dozens of people to edit the same file at the same time without the pain of “this document is locked for editing by another user.” The cloud-based solution has allowed us to open up email and other tools to students, which would not have been possible if we were still hosting it ourselves. And their innovative approach to calendars has given us the ability to communicate event information to staff, students, parents, and the community like never before. In short, moving to Google is probably the best technology decision we’ve made in our district in the last ten years.

But that doesn’t mean we will use it forever.

There are some scratches and dents in our Google experience, shiny though it may be. There are some things that are ultimately going to force us to go elsewhere. I don’t know where elsewhere is yet (and it’s not Microsoft, so put down the phone, Live 365 sales rep). Herewith are the four reasons the K-12 Education / Google marriage is destined for divorce:

Customer Service

Google doesn’t excel at customer service. They rely heavily on forums and written documentation for the majority of support issues. I’m also not one to depend on companies’ customer support. In my experience, most companies’ support people generally aren’t much help. But I’ve had two issues with Google customer service within the last few months that have me seriously thinking about my future relationship with this company.

The first issue was a billing one. We pay for email archiving for staff email accounts. This year, the invoice was more than double the regular rate, despite our being quoted the same amount we always pay. It was a simple matter of them double billing us, and charging us tax when they shouldn’t have. But it took about 10 weeks to get it resolved, mostly because I was working with a different person at each interaction. I don’t have an account representative that I can call who can take care of this. “We’ll submit a request for re-invoicing the correct amount.” Then there’s nothing until I get another nastygram about non-payment. And through the whole experience, I’m the bad guy for not paying the bill.

Still, that’s just a minor annoyance. It didn’t really affect our use of Google’s services. But when we had a few staff members get married, I changed their usernames to reflect their new status. This broke their email accounts because the change didn’t propagate correctly through Google’s services. It took two weeks to resolve this one, and ultimately ended in them directing me to use a workaround to sidestep a bug in the original workaround that they told me to use to get around the apparent bug that they never acknowledged. In the meantime, these staff members couldn’t use email for two weeks. It worked out all right, because this was in late July and early August. But if I had a teacher without email for two weeks in September, I would be facing a lot of pressure to switch email systems.

Google Plus

I was excited about Plus when it launched. Here was Facebook, without it being, well, Facebook. I’ve often thought about using Facebook as a learning management system, in the spirit of bringing the learning to the networks our students are already using. What if a discussion of the hero’s journey and a description of RNA synthesis were mixed in with friends’ status updates and photos of cats? What if we didn’t force our students to come off the beach to play in our sandbox? Plus seemed like a golden opportunity to embrace social networking in education while sidestepping the privacy, online safety, and general disintegration of civilized society charges that are constantly levied against Zuckerberg and his company.

But, alas, Google Plus is not available for Google Apps for Education domains.

Fine. I can see their point. COPPA has some legal requirements regarding the use of these technologies by students under the age of 13 that make it difficult for Plus to actually work the way it’s supposed to without getting parent permission for every student user. Legally, it’s probably better for Google to not allow K-12 to use Plus. I get it.

But here’s the problem: over the last year, Google has been putting more and more eggs in the Plus basket. Nearly every new Google feature launched in the last year has required a Plus account. Google’s video conferencing app? Need a Plus account. Search Plus Your World? Have to have Plus. At the same time, they’re reducing the functionality of non-Plus tools. Remember Google Labs? No longer available. Google Reader has significantly reduced features. iGoogle is going away, in favor of a more customized Google home page. Where does that customization come from? You guessed it, Google Plus.

The bottom line is that Google is strongly encouraging the use of Plus, and is integrating it across the spectrum of Google products. That leaves people who don’t want Plus accounts (and those who can’t get them) out in the cold.

Rate of Change

I’m not a Luddite. I’m not change-averse. I love technological improvements. I still get excited about upgrades, especially when those upgrades make things easier to use and don’t break things. But I’m not a fan of change for change’s sake.

I love the incremental upgrades to Google Docs. The pagination tools in Docs are wonderful. The ability to sort on multiple columns in the spreadsheet makes it more useful. But changing the user interface, moving things around, removing options, and changing defaults can lead to confusion and resentment.

Last year, Google revamped all of their tools for the second time since we’ve been using them. Email looks different. Calendars have been redesigned. Some features are gone. Others have been re-worked. This is a fine line, I know. I understand that improvements are a good thing, and that there will be no consensus on whether each particular change is an improvement. But my users want to use the tool, and keep it out of the way. They don’t want to focus on Google apps. They just want the tools to be there and work consistently.

In education (as in the business world — let’s not kid ourselves), we have traditionally protected our users from the exhaustive upgrade cycle that the computer industry tries to thrust upon is. We’re using Office 2003 not because we don’t like 2010, but because 2003 works for us. It’s comfortable. It does what we need. We don’t want to have to re-learn how to mail merge yet again. We have other more important things to do. But in the cloud, we don’t have that option. We’re constantly upgrading. We’re constantly adapting. So the software isn’t always the same as it was last time we used it. That’s frustrating for a lot of people, including the ones who are trying to teach others how to use it.

There’s a tendency across the industry to fail early. Get a product out there, and then revise it. But we don’t have time to be your beta testers.

Data Liberation

Ironically, Google is one of the good guys when it comes to data liberation. When signing up for any online service, you should be asking how easy it is to take your ball and go home. Remember, when using these services, that your data is yours. You should be able to export it easily in a format that can be used elsewhere. Google’s Data Liberation Front explains how to do this for most of Google’s services. That’s great. But it’s not enough.

In our district, every fifth grader gets a Google Apps account in our domain. They keep this account until they leave the school district. For most of them, that’s when they graduate seven years later. Over the course of those seven years, they create hundreds of documents, exchange email with people both inside and outside our domain, create online portfolios, web sites, blogs, and other examples of their work, upload photos and videos and share them online, and create digital footprints all over the Internet. These are all very good things. Under the supervision of their teachers, they create online identities that are largely positive reflections of their experience in mddle- and high school.

But when they graduate, we delete it all. As someone who is no longer associated with our schools, they no longer qualify for an account in our domain. Ideally, we should be able to cut them loose — spin off their accounts into full-fledged Google accounts, outside the realm of our domain. But we can’t do that. The best we can do is say “back up your data, folks, because your account is going away.”

Some schools approach this by leaving their accounts active even after they leave. But this creates problems, too. Suddenly, the walled garden in which we are teaching our students about appropriate online behavior has people in it who are no longer part of our school community. That’s not a workable solution either.

The real solution might be to forget apps for education, and just have our students sign up for real Google accounts to begin with. We’re not ready to do that yet (and it would create problems for students under the age of 13), but it is an attractive option.

I don’t have any solutions. There’s no better alternative right now. There is certainly nothing available that’s so useful, easy to use, and affordable. But someday there will be. And we’ll probably switch.

Image credit: brionv on Flickr.