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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Bring Your Own 1:1

As we’ve been discussing next generation learning, it has become increasingly clear that every student needs a device. I’m not sure yet what the specifics of that device are. I know it needs to be network-connected. I know that it has to be portable. I think it should be a content creation device and not just a content consumption device. But beyond that, I’m not sure how much it matters.

Throughout this process, our thinking seems to be moving between a bring your own device (BYOD) program and a 1:1 program. BYOD implies that students bring the devices they already have — whatever they may be — to school and use them as part of the learning process. A 1:1 program is typically one in which the school provides a device for each learner. In most of these programs, the device is assigned to the student for a whole year (or multiple years). The student can take the device home, and it’s also used at school in most classes.

From an educational perspective, 1:1 is a lot easier than BYOD. I remember the early days of graphing calculators. Teachers asked the parents to buy graphing calculators for their high school math students. They couldn’t say “you must buy the TI-81.” They simply explained the features the calculator had to have, and the students brought in whatever tools they had. The results were good — the students learned how to use their devices, and most of the time everyone was able to accomplish the required tasks. But the road to success was pretty rocky. Teachers spent countless hours in class trying to troubleshoot problems with the various devices the students had. They would consult the manuals and the help systems and help the students try to figure out how their particular calculators did all of the functions they needed. It was a pretty steep learning curve.

The same can be said of BYOD programs. Some students will have iOS devices that can’t access web sites with Java or Flash. Others may have a phone or other small device that’s difficult to type on. Some students can watch videos. Some can create videos. Some have great e-readers that work with just about every format out there. Others can read some e-books but not others because of competing DRM and file format systems. Some students will have unfiltered access to the Internet through their mobile plans. Others will have to rely on wi-fi at school and home. Figuring out the various capabilities of the devices and trying to take advantage of the tools available without leaving a child behind will be a major challenge for the teacher in this type of environment.

A 1:1 program is a lot easier, because it gives the school a sense of control and the students a degree of standardization. If we give every sixth grader a netbook, for example, we can easily enumerate the things they can and cannot do with those devices. The teachers know what can be done. The tech support people can more easily identify and troubleshoot problems, and it’s much easier to make productive academic use of the devices. In short, a 1:1 program helps us stop focusing so much on the technology. Instead, we can concentrate on the learning.

But 1:1 programs are expensive. Some experts warn that the cost of purchasing the device is only half of the cost of the program, once you factor in the needs for technology infrastructure, tech support, professional development, and instructional support. In an age when we’re cutting staff, increasing class sizes, and constantly trying to stretch our education dollars, spending $200-500 per student per year on technology is probably unrealistic.

So we’re faced with the decision: do we try to go with 1:1 or do we use BYOD? I’ve been leaning toward both. Let’s plan for a 1:1 program. To do that, we’d be looking at a year of planning, and probably a 3-4 year implementation. If we pulled the trigger today on a 1:1 program, it would be the fall of 2016 before every student in grades 6-12 has a computer. Our current eighth graders will be seniors. Our second graders will be in middle school. That’s a long time. So, in the meantime, let’s do a BYOD program. Let the students bring the things they have. Do some work on the infrastructure to support a lot of technology. Increase the focus on professional development, and prepare teachers for the connected classroom. In addition to meeting the current students’ needs, it’ll help make the transition to a 1:1 program easier.

But there’s this little voice in the back of my head.

You’re doing it wrong.

What’s that?

Stop building the networked world. Use the network that’s already there.

Huh?

Don’t bring your students to your learning network. Bring the learning to the students’ networks.

That’s a major paradigm shift. It ties back to the work I’ve been doing with Massive Open Online Courses. When we take an online course, we typically enroll in some kind of learning management system. We log into Blackboard or Moodle or whatever we’re using, and we interact with the course content there. We complete readings. We write reflections. We participate in discussions with our cohorts. In the good classes, we build a little learning network and we actually learn from one another.

Then the class ends. we lose our access to the learning management system. We lose the connections to the other participants in the class. We can’t get to our discussions or our reflections or any of the course content. Our time is up. The learning stops.

Instead of building this artificial learning environment, though, what if we used our existing personal learning networks? So instead of posting assignments in Moodle, the instructor posts them on a blog. Students interact through Twitter. They write their own reflections and respond to prompts using hash tags and their own blogs. Maybe it’s as simple as writing in Google Docs, sharing publicly, and tweeting out the link. (Stay with me, here, I’m about to drop an F-bomb). What if the course content were actually integrated with my Facebook feed? I go there every day already. So I see the photos of my cousin’s kids. I see that I’ve been challenged to a new Words With Friends game. I see the link to a news article that my wife posted on her wall. And I see a discussion about the online course. I see a post made by the teacher and comments from the students. Or a question raised by a student that sparked a discussion.

What happens when the course ends? Nothing. All of the stuff is still out there online. If I want to continue those connections I’ve made with my cohort, I don’t have to do anything. They’re still there. Learning can continue.

What if online learning for our students were like that? What if social networking and social learning were the same thing? That would be a lot more like “real life” wouldn’t it?

Back to devices. Shouldn’t our students — or at least their families — be making the decisions about what’s best for them? For all the complaining I do about Microsoft and Apple, I really couldn’t care less what people use. I mostly just don’t want them to tell me what I have to use. If they understand what the device will and will not do, and the merits and shortcomings of their decisions, who am I to tell them what to buy?

So, yes. 1:1. Every student needs a device. And let’s do BYOD while we’re working on getting to 1:1. And if we never actually get there, that wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing.

Photo credit: Ken Colwell on Flickr.