Feed the Hungry

grandmaYou didn’t go to Grandma’s house without eating. There were always baked goods: cookies, coffee cake, donuts. As soon as you sat down, she’d put on a fresh pot of coffee and start cooking. What can I make you? Want a sandwich? Macaroni and cheese? She would start going through the icebox and pull out everything. Have some braciole while I fry up some zucchini. If you called ahead, grandpa would make pizza (whether he wanted to or not).

What’s a matter? Don’t you like it? No. It’s not that. It’s just that, well, I’ve already eaten a couple times this month, and I just stopped by….

Hunger had nothing to do with it. Serving food was a way of showing hospitality. It was something she could do for you to make you feel welcome. And it worked. Everyone was welcome. Everyone felt loved.

But a lot of food went to waste. If she had two visitors, she’d make enough food to feed eight. Some of that would be recycled as appetizers for the next guest, but invariably a lot of things went uneaten.

For the first half of my career, the primary barrier to effective technology integration in the classroom was a lack of technology resources. If you asked teachers, principals, parents, or anyone else familiar with schools why educational practice was so firmly rooted in traditional instructional methods, even as technology radically transformed every other aspect of our lives, they would point to a lack of resources. I can’t effectively use technology in my teaching because I only have one two four computers in my classroom, and I have 21 27 32 kids. But we’ve shifted a lot of our resources over the last few years away from textbooks and legacy teaching materials in favor of better technology resources. We’ve made huge investments in networking infrastructure and mobile technologies and display tools to eliminate the gap between what we have and what we need. And while we haven’t jumped into the 1:1 computing pool yet, we are very close to the point where technology is available to all students when they need it. We have just about reached ubiquity.

The problem, though, is that we keep pulling computing devices out of the fridge and putting them on the table. Let me make a fresh pot of wifi. Try some of these iPads while I cook up a batch of laptops. It doesn’t really matter if you’re hungry. Someday, you will be hungry. And you’ll have the resources when you’re ready for them.

Over the last few years, our schools have been snacking a lot on negotiations and teacher evaluations and new testing requirements and SLOs. They’ve been choking down power standards to be polite, and they’ve been taking a helping of PLCs because they know they’re nutritious. They’d love to have some RTI, and people keep telling them they should try the nextgen learning and personal learning networks. But if they take another bite right now, we’re going to end up with half-digested formative assessments all over the carpet.

So this year, we’ve backed off. There’s a vision of learning where we employ best practices, facilitated by technology, to systematically work through the learning standards, assessing and adapting instruction along the way to ensure that students reach mastery at their own pace. Meanwhile, we’re using digital tools to develop students’ innovative thinking, creativity, and collaboration skills. They apply their learning to new, real problems. They generate new ideas and new solutions and share those ideas in a variety of formats. Students are self-directed. Learning occurs both inside and outside the classroom. Learners engage in curriculum systemically while also synthesizing and applying that knowledge in creative ways. Assessments inform instruction, and grades are a reflection of student mastery of learning targets, measuring what they have learned rather than what they have done. But most of our teachers and principals don’t have the appetite for that right now.

I’m sensing a need to back off on the hardware, too. We ordered the appetizers and went a bit overboard on the bread and salad. Now that the main course is here, it’s pretty clear we’re going to need a take out container. So before the waitress comes over with the dessert menu, I think we need to have a talk about whether we really need the calories. We should stop cooking and let our appetites catch up. Then, as people get hungry, let’s feed them with some nutritious offerings full of whole-grain instructional methodology, organic intervention strategies, and  vitamin-rich participatory learning. There’s still a place for deep-fried gadgets, high-sodium mobile tools, and those sweet, sweet apps. But let’s recognize that those are sometimes foods. Our schools need a healthier approach to our technology diet.

 

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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.