Five to Seven Years

Twenty-one years is a long time.

I wore a pager to the interview because we were expecting a baby any time. That child is entering her senior year of college this fall. I was asked if I knew Visual Basic. “Sure,” I said. How hard could it be? I had programmed in a dozen languages by that point, and I was pretty sure adding another one wouldn’t be that hard. I was hired as a Visual Basic teacher who also oversaw all aspects of technology for the high school in my spare time.

My first ID badge, 1999

I needed a computer, and was told to pick one out. It was a 300 mhz Pentium 2 with 32 mb ram and a 500 mb hard drive, running Windows 98. I used it for years, and then repurposed it as a server. Among other things, it hosted the district’s first Moodle and WordPress servers before we finally recycled it. Since then, I’ve had three other desktops and six laptops. My current laptop is the oldest and slowest on the administrative team.

When I started, I inherited a new server that handled logins, network drives, and the district web site. It was the first time students and staff members had to log in to computers, and it was a brand new concept that annoyed a lot of people. We didn’t have any support agreements, and when things broke, it was up to me and Alta Vista to figure out what was wrong and fix it. There’s nothing better for developing problem solving skills than having a problem that you’re responsible for solving and people relying on you to solve it quickly.

I taught the Visual Basic class in a computer lab that had IBM PS/2 computers in it. We replaced that lab in 2000, and then again in 2006, 2012, and 2019. That’s five sets of computers in that room.

That first year, the goal of the technology team at the high school was to find a way to get a computer in every classroom. At that point, there were a few computer labs, and 10 computers in the media center, and computers in the department offices. We didn’t have computers in every classroom until 2002, and the high school was the last building to achieve that goal.

Instructionally, all efforts were focused on tools. We hadn’t figured out yet that technology is a catalyst for pedagogical change. We didn’t know that we could leverage technology to better differentiate and focus on higher order thinking skills and improve engagement and relevance. We were mainly focused on helping teachers use technology as a resource for preparing instruction. We knew technology was going to change the world. We just weren’t sure how.

I expected to stay for 5-7 years. In previous jobs, I realized that the person in charge of technology is really only effective for that long. Education is glacially slow at adapting, and technology is painfully quick. Those forces rubbing against each other cause a lot of friction, and the person straddling those two worlds gets burned out quickly. I saw technology directors craft a vision and set goals. But the goals took too long to accomplish. They were so laser-focused on meeting the goals that they didn’t realize that the goals were no longer relevant. I didn’t want to be that guy. So I gave myself seven years, max.

Six years in, I discovered personal learning networks. In late 2005, I started listening to podcasts and blogging. Somehow, I got roped into EdTechTalk, which led to that crazy Africa trip. I started doing conference presentations. I was bullied into starting a Twitter account. I engaged in an online community of practitioners who were doing amazing things. They were asking the same questions I was asking. They were struggling with the same challenges. They were finding successes and setbacks and I was learning from them. I found I had some things to share, too. I started seeing learning in a different way, and it changed my view of how technology can support the schools we need. I was renewed, refreshed, recharged. My participation in these communities bought me another 5-7 years.

In the early 2010s, I was losing momentum again. The online conversations weren’t as groundbreaking as they once were. More people were coming online and saying the same things. I got tired of people comparing schools to 19th century factories. I grew bored with the artificial STEM vs STEAM vs STREAM arguments that amount to little more than arts and humanities advocates acting on their insecurities every time someone suggests that math and science might be important. I checked out of the online world and focused more on what we were doing locally.

And we were doing a lot. Computers had become affordable. Thanks largely to the industry disruption caused by the otherwise deplorable OLPC project, we could start putting computers into the hands of all children. This started as classroom carts introduced with curriculum adoptions. Within a few years, it made more sense to transition the technology from “places to people” and the 1:1 program was born. To go along with this, we opened the Center for Innovation and Technology in Education in 2014. This space physically embodies the intersection of learning and technology, and houses both the technology department and the instructional coaches. It has space for big idea conversations and more traditional professional development. It’s flexible and adaptive. It’s perhaps not quite as innovative as we had originally imagined, but it’s a place where we can focus on the craft of teaching and learning.

But now, it’s been another seven years. I’m running out of steam. And I’m realizing that I’m running out of years, too. I’ve just finished 27 years in education. I probably have 10 more. If I’m going to do something different, now’s the time to make the change.

The school will be fine. Some things aren’t going to be the same. There will be problems. But those will be an opportunity for someone else to become a problem solver. I’ll be the bad guy for a year or so. All of the problems tend to get blamed on the person who most recently left. There have already been some significant efforts to discredit my work and set the stage for the blame that’s coming. That’s fine. It doesn’t really matter that much.

I’ll miss some of the people. There are some great professionals in this school district that I deeply respect and admire. It’s been a privilege working with them. It’s unlikely that I will stay anywhere else as long as I’ve been here. So in some ways, this will always bee home.

But now, I have new challenges to face, new problems to solve. And 5-7 more years.

Faking It

When the web was new, we were very worried about the reliability of online content. We were moving from an environment where the means of publication were controlled. There were gatekeepers who controlled what content got published. They ensured that the information the public consumed was accurate and reliable. At least, that was the idea.

With the web, that changed because everyone suddenly had the ability to publish content. Anyone could make a web page. So we had to figure out how assess the credibility of a web site. I remember, when working on my Master’s degree in the late 90s, that information literacy was just starting to become a thing.  We were worried that our students might believe everything they read online.  So we tried to teach them the look critically at information resources. That work continues now, nearly a generation later.

But things have become more difficult. With the advent of Photoshop and other image editing software, it’s pretty easy to edit pictures to enhance or omit details. Sometimes, this is done for reasons of vanity, but it’s often done for political reasons as well. So now, in addition to assessing the reliability of web sites and news stories, we have to question the legitimacy of photographs, too. It’s okay. We’re getting better at it. We’re becoming more skeptical. Hopefully, we’re asking questions and citing sources and applying deductive reasoning and the scientific method to separate fact from fiction. I mean, it’s not like we’re just throwing up our hands and saying everything we don’t like is fake, right?

But here we go, making things harder again. Last year, Adobe showed a demo of its new VoCo product. With a 20 minute sample of a speaker’s voice, you can quickly and easily edit the audio and make the speaker say anything you want.

This isn’t out yet, but it’s coming in a future version of Adobe Creative Cloud, a widely used graphic arts package that includes Photoshop, InDesign, and other “standard” tools used by professionals and amateurs alike to edit digital work.

So now, you can take an audio recording and edit it as easily as a word processing document to make the speaker say anything you want. That’s really cool, but also terrifying. But wait, there’s more. Check out this research project at Stanford:

See what they’re doing there? Using nothing more complicated than a webcam, they’re mapping facial features onto an existing video. If you pair these two technologies together, you can create a video that makes any public figure say anything you want.

Sure, it’s not perfect. This is still complicated software. It’s cumbersome to use, especially when you’re trying to put all the pieces together. And the results aren’t great. You can tell from this video that the technology is not quite at the point where it’s going to fool most people.

But our job just got harder. On one level, it not too bad that we have to teach our students to think critically about video and audio. We really should have seen that coming. And we’re teaching students to think critically about information, regardless of the form. They just need to be aware that video and audio, like pictures and text, can be manipulated. Information has meta information. HOW do you know? What is the source for the position you’re taking? Why do you trust that source? We need to challenge our students and each other to make the information about the information just as important as the content itself.

But the real problem is the plausible deniability. We can no longer prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone said something or did something. You have video of me holding up a convenience store? Prove that it’s me and that it hasn’t been altered. You claim you have an audio recording of a public figure making misogynist / racist / anti-semitic / anti-American comments? Prove that it hasn’t been doctored. Because it’s easy to fabricate these things now, we can use the technology as a scapegoat to disavow responsibility for our words and actions.

Information literacy includes the skills of selecting and curating information, assessing reliability and credibility, and then using that information in responsible ways. I’m not convinced that it’s possible to do that anymore. And you can’t prove that I’m wrong.


Acknowledgment: Almost all of this came from the RadioLab Story “Breaking News.” Those guys do fantastic work. You should go listen.

Also, I have no idea where the Lincoln photo originally came from. It’s literally all over the place. No, I don’t have permission to use it.


There was a social studies test coming up in seventh grade.

Jimmy is a conscientious student. He works hard, tries to please his parents and his teachers, and is helpful to others. Jimmy is a 21st century kid. He uses his Chromebook in most of his classes. He’s a self-directed learner. He has experience working collaboratively with his peers. He uses his information literacy skills to get factual information from multiple sources. He has learned to articulate and demonstrate learning in a variety of ways.

But Jimmy also knows that his social studies teacher pretty much follows the textbook. They’re studying chapter 14, so he looks online for tools to help him study for the chapter 14 test in his social studies book. He finds lots of resources, shared online by lots of teachers for their students. There are Quizlet flash cards, Kahoot quizzes, online study guides, and many other resources to help him prepare for the test.

Jimmy starts collecting these resources into a Google doc that he shares with some of his fellow students as a study guide. They work together to prepare for the test. It is unclear whether Jimmy realized that he had the actual test questions in his study guide, because his teacher’s test and the online study guides are both based on the tests that come with the textbook. Since they’re now 14 chapters into the school year, there’s a pretty good chance that he knew exactly which questions would be on the test.

David and Sarah are high school students taking an AP science class. With a couple weeks to go until the AP test, their teacher gives them a take-home practice test to help them prepare. The practice test comes with a scantron sheet where they bubble in their answers to the multiple choice questions.

Sarah knows that David is one of the smartest students in the class. She texts him and asks him to send her his answers to the practice test, presumably so she could compare them with her own answers. He takes a picture of his scantron sheet and sends it to her. He also sends it to a third student, Michael.

What Sarah didn’t know was that she and David had different tests. So when she blindly changed her answers to match his, she ended up with a score of 22%. Michael, on the other hand, didn’t change his answers and ended up doing better on the practice test than David did. All three students received failing grades and disciplinary action, including possible removal from National Honor Society.

An anonymous student sent a high school government teacher some photos of the final exam that is coming up in a few weeks. The photos of the test were clearly taken in the teacher’s classroom. The student was identified from other evidence in the photos and confessed to copying and sharing the test. But it is unclear how many students now have access to the test, or how many other tests are circulating among students who aren’t emailing them back to their teachers.

All of these are (mostly) real, and they’ve all happened within the last month. I changed some names and minor details. We are clearly seeing some growing pains as we come to terms with next generation learning and its relationship to traditional assessments.

Education used to be about knowledge and skills. We went to school to learn content and processes. And those things are still important. Our students need to know how Ohio’s state government compares with the federal government. It’s helpful for them to have some context of West African culture. There’s still a place in our society for legible handwriting and spelling and even multiplication facts, if we don’t go overboard with it.

But the reality is that our students are carrying around devices with them that have all of the answers, and those devices are not going away. So if our assessment of learning is limited to recall, we are really only testing their ability to Google and memorize.

So maybe it’s time to assess differently. We can use these recall types of tests as formative assessments. They give the teacher an idea of where the student is academically. They’re a progress report. They might provide information about how instruction needs to be adjusted to meet the student’s needs. But they’re not the final product of learning.

What is it that the student can DO with the knowledge and skills? Can they solve a unique problem? Can they combine information from different contexts in innovative ways? Can they recognize patterns and provide analysis and draw conclusions? What can they produce that demonstrates their learning?

Do we even have to have exams? One of the biggest criticisms of the current trends in education is that we over-test our students. This spring, we have 52 state-mandated test sessions, which average 90 minutes each. On average, every student will spend six hours testing (and there are several grade levels that don’t have any testing). That’s not counting testing for special education, gifted, English language learners, college entrance exams, or AP tests. It also doesn’t include the diagnostic tests that are used to help students prepare for the state tests. When we add to that the idea that our students should take summative final exams, and that we have large unit tests in many classes every few weeks, we have strengthened the argument that the most important thing we teach students is how to take a test.

These middle schoolers are different. The current sixth and seventh graders are not playing the school game the same way that the sophomores and juniors do. It’s going to be interesting to see whether the school adapts to the students or the students conform to the more traditional approaches of the older grades. In the meantime, we’re going to see a lot more friction as next generation learning comes into conflict with traditional teaching practices.

Photo credit: Hariadhi on Wikimedia Commons.