Sans Livres

Shortly after school ended in June, the custodial staff descended on the high school media center. They removed all of the books and bookshelves.

This2015-07-20 11.26.42 move had been coming for a while. Book circulation has been remarkably low for years. This year, the number of books checked out was smaller than the number of students in the school, averaging fewer than eight books per school day. Earlier in the spring, the media specialist had identified all of the books that had not been checked out since the library switched to an automated circulation system in the late 90s. She also weeded out all of the outdated books (we stopped updating the print encyclopedias in the early 2000s). To this, she added materials that had been purchased for specific projects or to meet individual requests for teachers’ units that are no longer used. When she was done weeding, she realized that all of the books that were left would fit in the space formerly used to store magazines. So the books were moved to the magazine room.

Before you start with the technology-bashing, nostalgic ranting about card catalogs, the necessity of the Dewey Decimal System, and Google’s systematic deconstruction of modern civilization, let me also point out that at the same time, the custodial crews also removed the 34 computers, as well as the islands they were on. Those islands were using about 40% of the space in the room.  While some of those computers will come back, they won’t be front-and-center anymore. As part of our ongoing “places to people” initiative, most of our students are using mobile technologies more and more, and the need for desktop computers tied to a specific location is waning. The computers that remain will be off in the corners of the room where the bookshelves used to be.

The reality is that the media center is the largest instructional space in the school. It’s the only room that will fit 100 people in a collaborative academic setting. Our students need to work together on projects. They need to have access to creative tools, but those tools don’t need to dominate their learning spaces. They need to make connections to other people, both within and beyond the school. They need to hone their communication skills, through writing, peer editing, presentations, multimedia, and other forms that I don’t really understand. They need a space to innovate.

Most of all, the school needs a space that is flexible. It has to allow for individual study as well as collaborative work. It needs comfortable spaces and task-oriented places designed for productivity. It needs to allow for conversations but still be quiet enough for people to get their work done.  The high school has spent a lot of time trying to get that right, and I’m anxious to see how it turns out.

And, while we mourn the loss of printed books, what do the students think of all this?

Sad, yes. They enjoy reading. And they like reading from actual books. But the use of books as information resources is largely outdated now. The books we read now are pleasure books. So instead of a high school (or university) library model, which features a lot of nonfiction and a small fiction section, maybe we need to go back to the public library (or elementary school library) model, where most of the collection is pleasure reading. My guess is that most of the books that are left after the great purge of 2015 are just that: books our students enjoy for their own sake.

And those books aren’t going anywhere.

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.

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.