Lacking Vision in LA

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.


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.

Homogenizing Tablets

Here in the overly large school district we are buying lots of iPads.

Nothing particularly unusual about that. While the brand of the tablet may vary1, many educational institutions are trying to figure out if this new format could be a good classroom tool.

And I think most of our schools don’t understand what they have purchased.

Most iPad owners probably realized very quickly that it’s not a computer. There really isn’t a good, short generic label for it, but everything in this relatively new category of mobile communications devices2 was designed to be for individual use and to be easily customizable.

Schools on the other hand want to use these devices in the same way they’ve used “standard” computers for the past twenty years: very clone-able and offering the exact same experience for every person who sits down at it.

In some ways this dichotomy mirrors the disconnect between our traditional factory model of education and the growing personalization of learning out there in the real world. We continue to try and maintain an homogenized approach to schooling while the opportunities for individual and high social learning is exploding.

Ok, maybe stretching things a bit, but the point is that these can and should be highly individualized learning devices if we were thinking in those terms for school as a whole.

In the meantime, there are more than a few companies trying to build a “school tablet”, one that does allow for the tight controls our IT department lusts after (and those in other districts, I’m guessing). The latest example is the Amplify Tablet, announced this week at the South by Southwest Education conference (aka sxswedu).

According to the company, Amplify is designed to give “teachers the ability to both monitor and control what students do with the device”.

Teachers can conduct lessons with an entire class or small group and can instantly see what websites or lesson areas students are visiting. A teacher dashboard allows them to take instant polls, ask kids to “raise their hands” virtually and, if things get out of hand, redirect the entire class with an “Eyes on Teacher” button that instantly pushes the message out to every screen.

In other words, Amplify is really no different from what we have now, both in terms of computing devices and how we use them. The purpose of this table is to foster the same nice, neat, uniform, teacher-directed instruction that has been the centerpiece of schooling for more than a century. If it’s not there already, I fully expect Amplify to come with an app for taking standardized tests since the whole package is designed to address the holy grail of American education: higher scores.

One of the reasons I’m such a big advocate for bring-your-own-devices programs is that I hope it will force a change in the way we use technology in schools by making it more individual and personal. Unfortunately, it will take more than allowing kids to use cell phones and tablets inside the building to force the kind of major changes in the traditional school structure we need.

By the way, all the press on the Amplify announcement calls this a “start up” company but it’s hardly in the same class with other small tech groups scrambling to make a name for themselves. Amplify Education Inc. was formed following the purchase of education start-up Wireless Generation by News Corp., and its CEO is former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

Klein is very wedded to a traditional, test-driven vision of education while News Corp is very driven by making money any way it can. Not a good combination.

1 Not a fan of Apple? From this point on, feel free to substitute your favorite tablet brand for iPad. My point won’t change.

2 MCD? Nope, that doesn’t work.

Personal Tech

One of the conclusions from a new study of computer use says that “[i]n the next five years, tablets will displace notebook-style computers to become the dominant personal computing platform.”

I wonder if the word “displace” shouldn’t be replaced with the word “supplement”?

Based on my personal, very not-research-based experience, the functionality of my iPad has developed grown over two years so that these days my laptop usually remains on my desk while the tablet goes with me for most daily activities.  I still have a desktop machine at home (an old Mac Mini) but it now exists only to store and serve media and files. I expect that once the capabilities and reliability of all those many clouds improve, that unit will become unnecessary.

So, for me at least, the laptop has become the desktop and the tablet is the portable device, pulling into the same relationship the laptop and desktop had a few years ago. For a while, the convenience of the laptop was nice but it didn’t have all the power and features needed for some tasks. That changed over time and my laptop is now a complete desktop replacement.

The same will happen with tablets and whatever lightweight, portable communications devices are coming (Google glasses anyone?).

As part of this evolving world of portable devices, the research company speculates about something they call “frames” which would act like wireless docking stations.

Frames will be large, stationary displays that a person can use to wirelessly show video, documents and any other tablet-based content. They’ll be laden with sensors, so people can interact with them through touch, voice and gestures (via motion sensors similar to those in Microsoft’s Kinect).

Forrester envisions frames as fixtures in homes, offices, hotel rooms, coffee shops and conferences. Forrester analysts expect them to reach the mass market in 2015, when they will spark an acceleration in the displacement of laptops.

Conference centers and offices maybe but I really don’t want to show the whole coffee shop what I’m working on.

Anyway, I sometimes use a bluetooth keyboard with my iPad but I’m not sure I see the point of having a whole setup like this in a fixed location. If these frames are coming I certainly hope they are better than the physical docking stations for current laptops. For a while, everyone in our offices wanted one, until they discovered just how badly they worked, not to mention being incompatible with the next model computer they received.

In the end these predictions sounds like a report for IT managers in businesses, not a reflection of how most people seem to want to use portable devices. It certainly doesn’t sound like my experience, but then I’m probably not reflective of the audience the research company is trying to reach.

Changing Education? Not Likely

The breathless headline promises to explain How the iPad is Changing Education.

Just the latest in a growing collection of hundreds (maybe thousands) of similar declarations made in publications large and small over the two years since the iPad was released, trying to make a cast for how revolutionary the device (and tablets in general) is/will be to “education”. 

Certainly Apple has sold a bunch of them (something like 67 million world wide), include many that are part of well-publicized projects in some K12 schools and colleges. There are even a few studies suggesting students benefit instructionally from the interactivity the device provides.

But changing education? Not likely.

Just in my lifetime we’ve had a long parade of technologies for which claims of “changing education” were made and still very little about what we call school is different from when I sat in a classroom as a student. The institution of what we call school is extremely resistant to meaningful modification, including from the pressure of new tech.

What’s different with the iPad is the way that some of us, still a relatively small minority, are increasingly using it in new ways for our personal learning.

However, that’s more about a networked device becoming more portable and easier to use than anything else. Not much different from the way that lighter, more capable laptops made personal learning easier than it was when the computer was too big to move from a desk.

The iPad, and other interconnected mobile devices yet to come, does have the potential to make major changes to the way kids communicate, collaborate, and learn. Potential that could be used by schools and teachers that are willing modify their traditional approaches by sharing control over the learning process with students.

But iPads changing education just by existing? Not likely.

Plenty of Choices. Just Not Good Ones.

With the next version of the iPad being announced later today, I was thinking about the way some in leadership positions here in the overly-large school district talk about using “tablets”, using the generic term when it’s pretty clear that most others are hearing iPads.

They try very hard not to lean toward a specific product since the system has also blessed the purchase of the Xoom device by Motorola and running Android. In effect, they want schools and offices to think of the two operating systems as equal and to make a choice based on needs. Or something like that.

Early in the school year when we started working with tablets in the system, I tried to be balanced when discussing which device someone should consider, with a collection of plusses and minuses for each. Now, after spending some time with the Xoom and watching others struggling with it, I’ve pretty much given up on being “fair”.

The big problem is that iOS and Android are not equal, not even close, especially when implemented on tablets.

I could go into my long list of reasons why, but instead read what Fraser Speirs, who has a whole lot more experience using mobile devices in a classroom, has to say on the matter.

His conclusion is that Android represents solid engineering on the part of Google. However, the way manufacturers deploy it – with multiple versions, confusing upgrade policies, inconsistent user interfaces and hardware integration – is a “deal breaker”.

Read the whole post which is a great analysis of Android’s problems. Speirs is focusing on a school environment but many of the points he makes will be relevant to anyone considering purchasing any mobile device.

Other than the rumors being passed around, I have no idea what Apple will show in their presentation. But I do know that whatever the products, the hardware and software involved will be tightly integrated, producing a user experience that’s just not available on any Android device.

You may not like Apple or iPads or stuff with i names. But the company’s recent successes (computers sales are also growing fast) shows that there are plenty of us who like our technology to just work smoothly without a lot of fuss.

And, of course, when it comes to tablets you do have plenty of choices. Just not good ones.

Is This What You’d Call a “PC”?

I’ve been working on a presentation for the VSTE Mobile Learning Conferences (one next week and another the week after), which means I’m paying more attention to anything related to the subject at hand.

Like this view of the tablet business from the president of Microsoft phone division.

The use of the mobile OS would be “in conflict” with Microsoft’s notion of having the full speed of a computer in any design, including truly mobile tablets. He insisted that users would want to do PC-style activities on a tablet and saw Windows 8’s networking and printing support as being important.

“We view a tablet as a PC,” Lees said.

Interesting. I think I’m doing a “PC-style” activity, namely writing this post, on this iPad right now.

Anyway, I suppose it really depends on what you want, when, and how you want to do those PC-style activities. Certainly I’m not going to write the great American novel on this thing (not without using a bluetooth keyboard) or work with complex spreadsheets.

But I can edit video, record audio, and create music, as well as do a whole host of other things that a few years ago would be considered “PC activities”. And more functionality is being added every day, some of which would be difficult to do on your standard PC.

So, while the concept of what is considered a computer is getting fuzzier, the remarks of this exec makes very clear the distinction between Apple’s concept of post-PC devices and Microsoft’s dedication to more PCs.

I rather like the post-PC vision.

The Daily Loser

Preceded by plenty of breathless rumor, The Daily was released last Wednesday, promising once again to revolutionize the news business.

In case you missed the hype, this is the iPad app developed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp at a cost of $30 million and supposedly backed by a staff of 100 creating exclusive material.

I’ve been playing with The Daily since it showed up in the app store and there’s no way I’ll be paying the 99 cents weekly charge ($39.99 annually) when the sample subscription runs out.

Beyond the version 1.0 bugs (slow, inconsistent navigation, way over-cute interface, annoying crashes, did I mention slow?), the biggest problem is the content.

First of all, there’s nothing unique about it. Several of the articles showed up in other places on the web and the rest is full of gossip and fluff pieces.

Then there’s the fact that the material is updated daily (hence the name), a concept that’s dying as fast as the paper version of the Washington Post that lands on my porch each morning (not my choice). Plus, the actual news consists of stories that show up in my aggregator as soon as I open it.

However, more than anything, I don’t want to pay for news from the megacorp that offers such crap as the New York Post and Fox News.  Just being picky I guess.

Ok, who’s next to revolutionize the newspaper industry?

No, It’s Not a Computer

For those schools who look at the iPad and see a computer, Fraser Speirs suggests a rather Zen approach by understanding how that device wants to be used.

The iPad is an intensely personal device. In its design intent it is, truly, much more like a “big iPhone” than a “small laptop”. The iPad isn’t something you pass around. It’s not really designed to be a “resource” that many people take advantage of. It’s designed to be owned, configured to your taste, invested in and curated.

Which goes completely against the standard way we use computers in most schools: cloned to function identically, organized into labs (or carts), and used identically by students (also organized into labs).

However, it doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at units running Apple’s iOS or any number of competing products.  All of them in this category are designed to be personal communication devices, not traditional computers.

And trying to make them fit into that mold is only going to frustrate a lot of educators (not to mention their IT support partners) and waste a lot of money in the process.

It’s Got Star Power!

Reading or watching a story in the popular media about how technology is being used in schools usually makes me cringe.  Take for example a recent article in the New York Times about schools embracing iPads.

The two digital pages include several extremely superficial examples of classroom use that include over-the-top quotes like “I think this could very well be the biggest thing to hit school technology since the overhead projector.” from a principal.

And this observation, “It has brought individual technology into the classroom without changing the classroom atmosphere”, which is rather scary since a truly successful 1-1 program should change the classroom in some very significant ways.

Plus the incredible instance of the school that “converted an empty classroom into a lab with 36 iPads — named the iMaginarium — that has become the centerpiece of the school because, as the principal put it, “of all the devices out there, the iPad has the most star power with kids.”

Don’t get me wrong, I think the iPad and other touch tablets have a lot of potential as learning tools and, if we are ever going to break out of the teacher-centered, lecture/demo, traditional classroom, students will need to have some kind of easy to use, always connected, personal communication device.

However, until that potential is better realized, I wish reporters at the Times and elsewhere would pay closer attention to people like Larry Cuban who very correctly observes “There is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using these machines.”