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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So Right, So Wrong

Nothing makes me worry more about technology in education than looking at it through my parent lens.

I understand many of the issues. I know the backstory. I get the support issues, the irregular funding, the lack of time, the unfunded mandates, the pressures from outside sources. I also recognize my personal bias. I’m generally very jaded when it comes to new school technologies. We may not have been down this road before, but it does look awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

5041219411_cdec6ed14d[1]So my children’s teachers are excited about doing neat, innovative, new things with technology in our schools. Emily’s school got a lot of new Smart Boards this summer, and three of her teachers were among the lucky recipients. They were showing them off at Open House. They had their flashy Powerpoints or web sites up, and were thrilled to have this new innovation in their classrooms.

It looked — to me — like they were using “interactive whiteboard” interchangeably with “projection screen.” The valuable piece is not a whiteboard that can be used to control a computer. It’s having a projector in the room. I know one nearby school district that couldn’t afford IWBs. So they told the teachers that they would install projectors in all of the classrooms first. Then, as funding permitted, they’d go back and add the boards. By the time the funding was available, the teachers didn’t want the boards. It turns out that all they really wanted was a way to project the computer image.

I’ve seen more than my share of teachers using an IWB, with its $2,500 price tag, to show workbook pages that the class completes together. They found that they could take their worksheets to the copier in the building, scan it in, and have the digital version emailed to them. Then, they can just pull it up on their Smart Boards. Or, for a few hundred more dollars, they could add a document camera. Then, the scanning is unnecessary. The students can see the actual page, projected up on the screen.

So what’s wrong with this? Nothing. But it’s not innovative. My third grade math teacher did the same thing back in 1979. But she used an overhead projector and Vis-a-Vis pens. Total cost? About $50.

Back to open house. The teachers were all showing off their new web sites. The school has finally jumped on the Google Apps bandwagon, and they’re using Google Sites for teacher web pages. It seemed pretty clear that somebody mandated that all teachers will use Sites to create web pages for their classes. It’s less clear what those web sites are supposed to do, or how they contribute to instruction. Most of the ones I looked at didn’t have much more than a syllabus and contact information for the teacher. There certainly weren’t a lot of learning resources. A few have schedules and assignments online. But that’s about it. The web has been around for 20 years now, and we’re finally using it to duplicate the same information that has been handed out on paper to students and posted on the chalkboard in the classroom. We’re not leveraging the technology do do anything that we couldn’t do without it.

Meg’s teachers are innovating as well. I was surprised — and impressed — to see that one of her teachers has embraced Schoology this year. She’s taking all of the engagement and informal social learning of Facebook and leveraging it to help teach math. She has students writing about math, helping each other, and learning together online. It’s a clearinghouse for math resources for her class. It’s a one-stop-shop for all of the math stuff for her kids. Except none of those things are actually happening. The students are unmoderated, and, never having been taught how to engage in an online class, don’t really know how to make it anything more than a social environment. Worse, the assignments posted on Schoology don’t match those announced in class or posted in the online gradebook. Questions to the teacher are left unanswered. Sometimes the misinformation that students post goes uncorrected. The result? Confusion. We’ve instructed Meg to stop using it until the teacher has a better vision for how it’s going to help.

It seems like we keep promoting technology because we want to be innovative and progressive and cutting edge. Then, we use the technology to do do the same things we’ve always done. We’re buying laptops and tablets for kids so they can use online learning resources that are essentially digital workbooks and flash cards. We pay lip service to digital learning and the paperless classroom, but the number one technology problem in our school district (by far) is printing. We have more problems with printing than anything else we do. And despite our efforts to reduce printing, our 500 staff members and 4,000 students still print 15,000 pages per day.

Next year, our technology plan calls for beginning a teacher laptop program. In 2015, we’re scheduled to begin a 1:1 program with students, and teachers should have mobile technology before we start handing out laptops to kids.  But if we think a laptop in the hands of a teacher is somehow going to magically transform instruction, we’re deluding ourselves. While the computers may be more convenient because they’re portable, they’re not expected to do anything different from the computers currently in the classrooms. And when we do move from carts of laptops to one device per student, it’s just going to make it easier for the learners to access their online workbooks.

How do we change this? How do we actually make a difference with these new resources?

The easy answer is “they need lots of professional development.” That’s true. That’s not enough. We have to get everyone involved — teachers, administrators, students, parents — to think about education differently. We need to get away from focusing on grade point averages and standardized test scores, and focus instead on learning. And we need to make sure that the learning is relevant.

I think it’s time to be more purposeful and intentional about what’s happening in our schools. This isn’t just about what the politicians are doing to us.  It’s not about Common Core and PARCC and OTES. It’s not about breaking teachers’ unions or about protecting bad teaching. It’s not about destroying the cultural tradition that is public school in the United States, and it’s not about protecting it, either.

What is it about? I want my children to ask questions. I want them to question sources. I want them to ask where information comes from, and challenge the assumptions made by those who assert things as “fact”, “common sense”, or “obvious.” I want them to be able to debate eloquently in words and speech and text and photos. I want them to be able to respectfully disagree.

My children need to be able to take different ideas, maybe even information from tests that are given on different days, or, (gasp), different years, and put them together in new ways. I want them to dream up things I cannot imagine, and then make them a reality. I want them — with their generation — to solve these unsolvable problems of climate change and health care. I want them to find ways to overcome the decades-long American tradition of living beyond our means.

I want them to reflect on their learning and apply it to their lives.

But we have laptops to deploy. And we have to do it soon. The current classroom computers aren’t getting any younger.  And that 2015 target for student 1:1 is right around the corner.  So we’ll start with the teachers who are open to change. We’ll try to get them thinking about the bigger picture, and what this technology really means. We’ll ask them what they can do now that they couldn’t do before. We’ll push boundaries and challenge assumptions. Hopefully, we’ll get them modeling the kinds of next generation learning we want to see in all of our classrooms. We’ll get them excited about teaching again. And, if the stars align, and we get the support and the professional development time and the buy-in from all of the stakeholders, we’ll make that excitement contagious.

Or, maybe we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ll keep finding ever more complex and expensive ways to do the same things we’ve always done.

Photo credit: Mr. Peterson Online on Flickr.