Lacking Vision in LA

Stager_Tweet.png

Last spring the Los Angeles County schools voted to buy an iPad for every child in their system. This fall they started handing them to students, confident that they were locked down and could only be used for the designated instructional purposes.

Sure.

It took exactly one week for nearly 300 students at Roosevelt High School to hack through security so they could surf the Web on their new school-issued iPads, raising new concerns about a plan to distribute the devices to all students in the district.

I don’t know the details beyond what I’ve read on the LA Times site, but there are a couple aspects about this story that go beyond my original rant on this project.

First, it hardly rises to the level of “hacking” when all that was required was deleting the personal profile on the device. And I doubt 300 students discovered the process. More likely it was one or two who then spread the news.

But even worse than a few kids challenging a rather stupid attempt at “security” is the district leadership’s view of how they should be using a connected, powerful computing device. As little more than a very expensive means of delivering standard curriculum materials, stuff that’s probably little changed from the stuff currently on paper.

And that vision (or lack thereof) is driven home by their short term solution to the problem.

By Tuesday afternoon, L.A. Unified officials were weighing potential solutions. One would limit the tablets, when taken home, to curricular materials from the Pearson corporation, which are already installed. All other applications and Internet access would be turned off, according to a district “action plan.”

Or to put it another way,

Stager Tweet

In the end, LA could have paid Amplify to provide heavily locked-down tablets with canned curriculum materials and few worries about empowering children. And done it for far cheaper.

A Superintendent’s Plan for Change

Our new superintendent has been on the job about three months and is experiencing her first opening of school here in the overly-large school district. It’s probably not very different from any other large metropolitan suburban area, except that we are such an incredibly high-performing system1, so this must be very unique for her.

But before things get really rolling, our own “veteran Texas educator”2 decided to layout her “plan for significant change“, which is rather odd since many in this community will tell you the district is already very close to perfect. Grades and test scores never lie.

Anyway, what are these “significant” alterations to be made?

… she wants to close achievement gaps, expand gifted education and provide iPads to every student. She said she will push for later high school start times, would consider supporting charter schools and wants to focus on the needs of the county’s poorest students.

She also says we need to “cut costs and explore new revenue opportunities” and “we’ve got to be more competitive in the marketplace”, which sounds like something you’d hear from a CEO brought in to overhaul a company with a failing business model. Certainly no parallels with American education in that.

As to the broad areas on which she wants to focus, closing the achievement gap has been around forever, speaking to the success of previous superintendents in that area, and is really nothing more than code for getting kids in certain high profile ethnic groups to do better at taking tests. Would be nice if instead, she wants to improve their learning.

We’ve also been going round and round about high school start times, which is largely about finding the money to run more mostly empty buses, and charter schools, something that gets very vocal support from a very, very small part of the community.

Then there’s the matter of giving iPads to every student.3

Although it’s not hard to find stories of district one-to-one tablet programs, Los Angeles County being the highest profile one, I have yet to read about meaningful amounts of resources being devoted to teacher training in support of them. Or about how schools plan to fundamentally change curriculums and classroom practice in recognition of the powerful communications tools each student will now have in their hands.

If our local school board agrees to find the money necessary to pay for just the hardware (and that is a big if), I doubt those issues will be addressed around here either. As with most initiatives featuring technology, our leadership will probably approach this primarily as an IT task, rather than instructional and a significant opportunity to change how and what students learn.

In the end, however, none of the statements quoted in the article lead me to believe our new super will be addressing the 800-pound gorilla in the room: hyper reliance on standardized testing. As I said in my welcome message to her, we are very good at playing the testing game, and until she does something to break the data addiction suffered by many of our administrators, everything in her “vision” is just tinkering around the fringes.


1 True statement. Just ask our PR office.

2 Which is a damn scary descriptor by itself.

3 Actually, she said tablet. The reporter (or editor) used iPad in the second paragraph instead, probably to improve the link bait.

Our Screwed Up Approach to Instructional Technology

Schools buying iPads is not really news. Unless it’s one of the largest districts in the country, Los Angeles County, spending a boatload of cash, $30 million, on them.

Now I love my iPad, and believe it has great potential as a personal learning device. However, this particular story has many, many elements that illustrate just how screwed up our approach to instructional technology really is.

The Board of Education voted 6 to 0 on Tuesday to approve the contract after hearing senior staff laud Apple’s product as both the best in quality and the least expensive option that met the district’s specifications.

How many teachers and students were involved in setting those specifications? The article doesn’t say but I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that few if any classroom teachers (and probably no kids) had any say in the matter.

More likely, the "specifications" came from the IT department and is based only on the opinions of technicians. Or possibly from a superintendent, based on anecdotes of his children who can do amazing stuff on iPads that he/she extrapolated to every student in the county.

Again based only on speculation (and too many years of experience), I’m betting that $30 million includes no money for professional development, beyond maybe a short here’s-what-button-to-push orientation. Nothing to help teachers understand how to make the best use of these new tools in their instruction. And certainly no consideration of changing curriculum and classroom practice to fit the capabilities of these relatively new devices.

Then there’s the matter of how we pay for all those devices. In this case the money will come from a bond issue, not from continuing funds, which means the iPads purchased this summer will probably be long gone while taxpayers are still paying off the borrowed money.

Rather than building instructional technology into regular budgets, schools and districts seem to constantly fall into this kind of big burst, headline-making, "special occasion" spending. Why do they do it that way? Simple. Administrators, along with many teachers, parents, and other voting members of the community continue to view computers as a nice-to-have extra, something to play with after we finish all that regular school stuff.

But the problem is not just with the people who supported this vote. Those who spoke against the decision also reveal some pretty stupid approaches to making instructional technology decisions.

Hines [senior director of state government affairs for Microsoft] also noted that more businesses still use Microsoft platforms, and that students should be exposed to machines they will encounter in the workplace.

We don’t help kids at all by teaching them specific software, except for the few in specific vocational certification programs. Instead, how about helping kids understand how to use and be productive with any technology they might encounter? The flexibility to adapt to whatever new tools enter that workplace is a far more valuable skill than learning PowerPoint inside and out.

Finally, we arrive at the bottom line to all this.

Officials said they opposed a delay in part because new state and national tests will be taken on computers, and they don’t want Los Angeles students to lack the necessary experience with them.

As we’ve seen close up here in the overly-large school district (and the rest of Virginia), officials like administering standardized tests digitally because the results (aka "data") are available faster and are easier to manipulate. And learning how to generate good data is fast becoming more important than any other skill students might acquire during their time in K12.

Maybe even worth $30 million.

Paperless Makes You Stupid

Interesting ad in Fast Company, a business magazine that focuses on design and innovation. Featuring a cute little kid proudly holding up his A+ math paper, the copy tells us that “It’s easier to learn on paper” and that “Reading on paper is 10-30% faster than reading online, plus reviewing notes and highlighting is significantly more effective.”

Of course the company behind the ad sells paper, and we can only assume, would like the reader to buy more.

A website behind the ad campaign cites nine different papers and studies to support the overall contention that reading online and with digital readers is not good for “today’s students”. I don’t suppose the fact that two of them are more than ten years old and six others predate the release of the first iPad makes any difference.

However, what strikes me about the ad are the assumptions the copywriters seem to have about what education is and should be.

Learning math is correctly performing 36 calculations by hand. College is largely about reading standard printed textbooks and highlighting the text. Research papers are forever.

Teaching is all about transmitting information.

Paper has been around for almost two millennia and it has proven itself an effective and enduring method of transmitting information. In fact, learning from books continues to be one of the building blocks of a child’s future.

Let’s face it, that view of education is largely the same one held by most people in this country.

Read Past the Headline

Between Twitter, my RSS feeds, and email, at least a dozen people in the past few days have pointed me to an item with the breathless headline “1-Year Educational iPad Pilot Complete: Students Writing Markedly Improved“.

Very exciting. We certainly could use more solid research on the effectiveness of technology like the iPad for instruction. 

However, this ain’t it.

The post is nothing more than the complete text of a press release.

A narrative of how iPads were used in the classes of one teacher at a relatively exclusive private school for boys.

With very few details to validate the “markedly improved” metric.

And written by the company that publishes the $10 app used in the “study”.

I wonder how often this PR piece was passed around in an effort to justify iPad purchases without reading past the headline or questioning the source.