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.

5 Changes for 2014

These are NOT resolutions. I don’t do resolutions. But I was cleaning out my head the other night, and started making some lists. One of them was a list of things I want to do differently in the new year. So I might as well share them here.

8186050299_326326f4eb_t[1]Stop printing so much. Last month, I was in a meeting with four school district employees and one other person. We were going through a 23-page document. All four of us had paper copies of the document we had marked up with our notes. The guest had no paper, just the digital document. Paper is a habit. I find myself printing documents, taking them to meetings, writing notes on them, and then… nothing. They go into binders or folders or file drawers. But they’re rarely used again.

We need a culture shift. We need to stop printing and distributing documents and pretending that people will think we’re important if we pass around paper. For the last seven years, the printer in my office has literally been within reach of my desk.  In my new office, there is no printer. Now, to print, I’ll need to get up from my desk, go to a different room, and pick up my documents.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m going paperless. Every technologies has its place, and paper is no exception. But I want to move away from paper being the default format for my documents. We need a new habit.

10264637613_443d37ca3c_t[1]Reboot my PLN. In 2005, I embarked on an incredible journey that stared with blogs and podcasts and led to hundreds of hours of webcasting, scores of blog posts, new friends and colleagues from all over the world, and a trip to Africa. It turns out there are lots of people out there who have great ideas and are facing similar challenges as they try to improve education for our posterity. For a while, I thought of my personal learning network as a hobby more than anything. It distracted a bit from my job responsibilities, but it didn’t really have a tangible effect on my work. And that may have been true in the beginning. But as time went on, my learning network influenced my opinions, introduced me to new ideas, and gave me new lenses through which to see the educational and technology landscapes. It’s been the best professional development I’ve ever had, and it has changed my fundamental beliefs about education.

But over the last couple years, my participation has waned. I’m almost never jumping into a webcast these days. My podcast feed still has lots of great stuff in it, but there aren’t very many education podcasts in the mix anymore.  I read my Twitter stream only occasionally, and rarely engage in any meaningful conversation there. I have been noticeably less active in online forums and email lists. I have Flipboard and Paper.li configured, but rarely look at either one. I could claim that I’m busier now, that I don’t have time for these things. But I know that’s not the case. I need to get some new voices, do some pruning, and start paying more attention to what’s going on. That might mean new tools or new networks or new people, but I need to find a way to re-engage with the community.

8187930778_1dbb48fa84_t[1]Schedule more time for reflection. In 2006, I made 100 blog posts. I did the same in 2007. Most of them weren’t very good. But still, that was two posts per week. In 2013, I posted 15 times. That’s on par with recent years, which have averaged about 17. The new posts are much better, but not nearly frequent enough. For every blog post I make, there are two or three ideas that never get written.

I once told a colleague that if she seems that I’m not blogging, it means I’ve been too busy doing to spend time learning. I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate, but the pendulum has swung to far away from regular reflection.

I find that I’m more articulate — in meetings, conversations, emails, and social networks — if I take some time to write my ideas out once in a while. I need to do more of that. Maybe they won’t be blog posts. Maybe they’re just ideas scribbled in the notebook. But I have to spend more time this year thinking and reflecting and writing.

The process of learning requires acquisition of content followed by application or reflection on that content. Every week, I ask my staff to reflect on what they’ve learned that week, and to actually write a paragraph about it. I need to do more of that this year.

8186085683_10526c1682_t[1]Try to say “yes” more often. For me, this is year 15 in this job. One of the perils of staying that long is that I’m no longer on my first trip around the carousel. In my old age, I’ve become a bit of a curmudgeon. I don’t believe that this new product or pedagogical approach or testing regimen or evaluation program is going to revolutionize education. I don’t believe that iPads or Google Hangouts or 3D printers or maker spaces or Chromebooks or Khan Academy are going to save the world. But I have to stop dismissing everything out of hand. Yes, we’ve tried it before. No, it didn’t solve out problems. Yes, I’m willing to take another look. But I’m not interested in repeating the mistakes we have already made. So it’s a very fine line. I have to do a better job of asking good questions and keeping an open mind.

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Solve the LMS Problem. The one is different from the rest of the items on this list, because it’s not specifically about me. But it’s becoming increasingly clear in our school district that the lack of a unified learning management platform is inhibiting our teachers’ ability to embrace next generation learning. I’ve written in the past about LMS issues, and I’m not even convinced that having one is a good long term strategy. But we absolutely have to have one in the short term. Our teachers need to use an LMS to organize and deliver course content. It needs to be a place where is is easy to curate content, deliver it to students, and manage student engagement with that content. It has to be a collaborative space for teachers to share content, methods, and resources. And it needs to include assessment tools that make it easy to keep track of how students are doing. We do not have consensus on what we want in an LMS, and we do not have a budget for one. But we know that Moodle is no longer meeting out needs. No one seems to be very interested in iLearn Ohio, and pockets of teachers are spreading out in myriad directions looking at alternatives. We need to reign this in soon, get everyone on the same page, and move forward with a unified solution.

They do look like resolutions, don’t they? They’re not. But they are goals. They’re a direction. They’re a reflection on where I’ve been and where I’m heading. Maybe they’re a roadmap for 2014. Let’s make it a good year.

Photos from Jennifer DeWalt’s Ransom Note Generator.

Supporting the Mission

“We’re an educational organization. Learning is the heart of everything we do.” I was talking to my staff, explaining the purpose behind the TPS reports they’re required to complete each week. “We need to take a few minutes at the end of the week to reflect on what we’ve accomplished, what has challenged us, and what we have learned. If we’re not learning, we’re not growing.” They all agreed.

I think we often lose our sense of purpose as we’re pulled from one crisis to another. It’s easy to get lost in the quagmires of school funding and teacher evaluations and test scores and busing and cafeteria duty. We’re constantly being told how to do our jobs better while constantly being berated for over-spending and under-performing. It doesn’t matter that the critics don’t have any idea what they’re talking about, or that the countries we’re desperately trying to emulate are desperately trying to emulate us. We’re teachers. That’s what we do. We educate kids. And by educate, I mean more than just imparting information. We teach them to think, to communicate, to work together, and to take care of their society and their world.

But we get lost. Sometimes, it’s important to reflect on the things that aren’t important. I don’t care about food service, for example. It’s a necessary part of what we do, sure. We need to feed people. And it’s my opinion that our current food service staff is the best I’ve ever worked with. They provide an outstanding, nutritious product and are completely self-funded. But that’s not what our core mission is. The same is true for transportation. We need our kids to be in school so we can teach them. One good way to do that is to go to their houses and get them. We have a great transportation department that efficiently and safely transports thousands of kids to and from school every day. But we’re not here to move kids around. We’re here to teach them.

I could go right down the line. Transparency and fiscal accountability. Maintenance of buildings and grounds. Hiring and evaluating staff. They’re all important, sure. But they’re not the core of what we do.

146842557_616ec91d05[1]And then there’s technology. There’s technology to operate the school district. There’s technology to prepare and deliver instruction. There’s technology in the hands of the student used as a learning tool. Some of this is essential. Some of it isn’t. Web site? Probably not important. Running a mail server? Doesn’t really affect student learning. Wireless network? Maybe essential to support learning, but ancillary to what we really do.

Am I arguing myself out of a job? Maybe. But interestingly, most of the things we tend to outsource ARE the core things we’re supposed to be doing. Let’s find an online academy for credit recovery. Let’s look for an automated intervention problem. We don’t have enough students for Calculus BC, so why don’t we see if there’s an online option for those students?

In general, I’m very skeptical of services that take care of the core of our business. Maybe I’ve learned from IBM. When they introduced the PC in 1981, they outsourced the hardware to Intel, and the software to Microsoft. IBM itself became irrelevant. A generation later, Intel and Microsoft are still going strong, but IBM has been out of the personal computer business for more than a decade. If we outsource the teaching of kids, we’re gambling with our own relevance. If we send the students to Khan Academy to learn math, and Florida Virtual to learn English, and an MIT or Stanford online course for physics, then it won’t be long before people start wondering why we’re here. They’ll just go to those places themselves and cut out the middle man.

That’s the lens through which I took my first view of iLearn Ohio. It was hatched a couple years ago by the Office of 21st Century Education, an entity separate from the Ohio Department of Education, created to show Ohio schools how they can save truckloads of money by outsourcing teaching to private companies. The first version of iLearn Ohio was a clearinghouse for online courses. Providers — including most of the online charters in Ohio — could offer online courses through the site. Public schools could then go there and find appropriate coursework to fit any student’s needs, sign the kids up, and license the course. The courses were certainly cheaper than what it would cost to hire a teacher, find a classroom, purchase materials, and offer the class locally. And, of course, I was completely against it.

That’s why I didn’t pay much attention when the state re-launched iLearn Ohio last winter. Great. It’s just another way to privatize public education in a bold attempt to divert public education money to private companies. I was surprised to see a demo of it at a meeting last month. The clearinghouse is still there. But now, it’s a learning management system. In the full-featured LMS, teachers can create and deliver courses. It integrates with our student records system and with our Google Apps domain, so accounts can be automatically created, and students can automatically be assigned to courses. Teachers can bring open resources into their classes, develop their own content, or integrate resources from partner organizations (for a fee). Students can take assessments and turn in work online. There’s the capacity for an internal messaging system and online discussions. And, the tool is free for Ohio public schools.

This is different. This is no longer outsourcing the core mission. This is a tool that could potentially replace our Moodle server, which has been a source of frustration for teachers, students, and (especially) me for the last few years. If I don’t have to support a local server running an LMS, I can focus on other, more important things.

I asked a few teachers, including our integration specialist and our STEM coach, to take a look. We attended another demo, and they had lots of questions. It seems like there are many things the tool doesn’t do yet, but the developers are open to suggestions for improvements. They were also very up-front about what can and cannot be done right now.

So we’re going to try it. We’ll meet with them again, and try to set up a pilot. We’ll get a few teachers to try it out, including teachers who are currently using Moodle and some who have never waded into the blended learning pool. And we’ll see how it goes.

If this tool can help us avoid some of the distractions, while making it easier to focus on our core mission, it’s well worth the effort.

Photo credit: JISC_Infonet on Flickr