Chipping Away at the IT Barriers

A few months ago I ranted about how our IT department is adamant about not wanting Chromebooks to be used in our schools. If a technology is not blessed by Microsoft, they really don’t want to talk about it.

Now, however, things may be changing – a little – whether IT likes it or not.

A small group of principals here in the overly-large school district decided to bypass the usual bureaucratic channels, along with all the IT denials, and took their case for Chromebooks to directly our Deputy Superintendent (with a great deal of support and encouragement from our little cheering section).

To our surprise, he approved their proposal to purchase a limited number of the Google-based devices to test in their schools. The initiative only involves a few classrooms in five six schools so we certainly aren’t talking about any major shifts in thinking. But potentially it does represents a big crack in the IT barriers.

Of course, nothing is ever simple in our world. As you might imagine, our CIO1 is not happy.

The “Nonstandard Computer Exception Request” she signed (required by regulations) includes this pissy little declaration: “No requests for hardware or software support associated with these devices will be made to IT personnel.” It also forbids the schools from using the standard Google administrative dashboard to manage the Chromebooks, conveying the message: this is our sandbox, keep your crappy toys out.

So, IT is essentially treating these as BYOD devices2 and clearly trying to set up this project for failure. We on the instructional side, are doing our subversive best to make this initiative a success, with a big assist from our Google Education rep. More to come as we see how things play out.

One more thing about Chromebooks.

I’m not going to tell you that they are the ideal instructional device or that they will magically transform learning in our schools. They have plenty of flaws as a classroom tool3. Same with the iPad, another popular choice by schools over the past couple of years and also hobbled for effective use by the barriers erected by IT.

No computing device by itself is going to change public education. The technology must be accompanied by a whole new approach to pedagogy and curriculum, along with huge shifts in thinking from teachers, administrators, parents, and kids.

And, at least in our district, a major alteration in IT attitude – from obstruction to support.


  1. Her official title is Assistant Superintendent for Information Technology but she prefers that “industry standard” title.

  2. The process kids in our schools use to put their personal devices on the network is about as convoluted and unreliable as you could imagine.

  3. Start with being locked to a Google environment.

Moving Forward by Delivering Devices

Continuing on the topic of 1:1 device programs, Wired has a very good review of the lessons learned (and not learned) in the high-profile mess the leadership of Los Angeles schools created for themselves two years ago.

Currently everyone involved is pointing fingers, with the LA superintendent blaming Apple, Pearson, and technology in general. While still buying an additional $40 million worth of iPads and Chromebooks to be used “exclusively for testing”.

Michael Horn, an author and education consultant, hopes the expensive experience of LA “will get people to pause and learn the bigger lesson”. And what is that bigger lesson?

“LA is emblematic of a problem we’re seeing across the country right now,” he says. “Districts are starting with the technology and not asking themselves: ‘What problem are we trying to solve, and what’s the instructional model we need to solve it?’ and then finding technology in service of that.”

I’ll be plastering that quote on the wall at the next 1:1 meeting I attend here in the overly-large school district.

“A lot of schools get into trouble when the conversation starts with the vendor,” Horn says. “Where I’ve seen these programs work is when the school starts off with its vision, and only once they’ve sketched out what the solution should look like do they go out to the hardware and software communities to mix and match to meet those needs.”

Horn goes on to note that ed tech vendors often “design their software in a vacuum” without understanding how their products might be used in a real classroom.

On the other side of the equation many schools and districts are also wearing a mighty set of blinders when it comes to the possibilities for using technology, even tools not specifically labeled “ed tech”, for student learning. That, of course, may require examining and possibly changing our traditional practices

However, after all their problems over the past two years, I’m not at all sure the leadership of LAUSD has learned much, based on this statement from a district spokesperson: “We’re still very much moving forward in technology and continuing to deliver devices to schools.”

Someone probably needs to remind them again that “moving forward” in education is least of all about “delivering devices”.

Again, Tech is Not the Problem

A college professor writing in the New Yorker makes the case for banning laptops in the classroom.

Or at least he tries – and largely fails.

…the temptation for distraction was high. I know that I have a hard time staying on task when the option to check out at any momentary lull is available; I assumed that this must be true for my students, as well.

I wonder if he asked his students about the situation in addition to assuming their experience was just like his. And why is their temptation for distraction so high?

He goes on to cite a study which concluded that “disconnected students performed better on a post-lecture quiz”, and in the next paragraph acknowledges that the assessment method used by the researchers, a pop quiz, “are not the best measure of learning, which is an iterative and reflective process.”

Then, after discussing research that tried to incorporate more precision in to the investigative process, he at least approaches a part of the problem that does not assign sole blame to the technology.

These examples can be seen as the progeny of an ill-conceived union of twenty-first-century tools (computers, tablets, smartphones) with nineteenth-century modalities (lectures).

But that recognition doesn’t last long.

Common to all of these contexts is the human-machine interaction. Our “digital assistants” are platforms for play and socializing; it makes sense, then, that we would approach those devices as game and chat machines, rather than as learning portals.

It really doesn’t make sense. You’re the teacher. If you want your students to approach their devices as learning portals, then structure your instructional practice to fit that idea. Don’t assume they graduated high school with that understanding.

Anyway, he ends the piece with this grudging conclusion.

We’re not all that far along in understanding how learning, teaching, and technology interact in the classroom. Institutions should certainly enable faculty to experiment with new technology, but should also approach all potential classroom intruders with a healthy dose of skepticism, and resist the impulse to always implement the new, trendy thing out of our fear of being left behind.

In other words, we need more research about how we can keep our “nineteenth-century modality” for delivering information to students, followed closely by our time-honored assessment system of course, and “resist the impulse” to allow “new, trendy” things like laptops and wifi to be used.

Again, did any of these professors bother to talk to their students about how they learn best? Did any of them consider that maybe their approach to teaching was the part of the problem that needed fixing?

This essay reflects the university-level experience through the lens of a small group of professors. However, we have many K12 teachers who express similar feelings (and fears) about “twenty-first century tools” intruding on their traditional instructional methods.

Blame The Technology, As Always

Speaking of doing things the way we always have,1report from a teachers union in Northern Ireland calls for “urgent action over the impact of modern technology on children’s ability to learn at school”.

Nothing new here. You’ve probably read many stories like this, ones where educators, parents, politicians, and others express concerns over changes they see in kids, brought about by (more blamed on) technology. They’ve been told for years/decades/centuries.

And this from an elementary teacher quoted in this BBC story strikes me as the fundamental error in that call for “urgent action”.

There’s a complete lack of motivation among many of my pupils – these gadgets are really destroying their ability to learn.

So, the technology is at fault.

Ok, I have to ask: is it possible the lack of motivation in your students has less to do with the “gadgets” and more about what and how you’re teaching? Could it be you’re blaming the technology when you should be considering other factors?

It’s not just in the UK. Many education “experts” here in the US also assume that the rest of the world can fundamentally shift around us, with kids having access to powerful communication tools and networks (and, yes, complex games), but the curriculum and instructional practice of school can stay exactly the same.


  1. A possibly tenuous connection to the previous rant.

Technology and the Law

You really don’t need watch carefully to recognize that technology is advancing at a rate that is far outpacing the ability of governments and the legal system to keep up.

However, while a few stories of Congress critters struggling to cope with social media and judges being stumped by digital recording systems might be funny in the moment, the legal stagnation when it comes to rapid digital changes has serious implications for the future of American society.

As The Guardian, the UK news organization that first published Edward Snowden’s revelations of how the NSA is monitoring everyone’s communications, accurately notes, “Technology law will soon be reshaped by people who don’t use email”.

There’s been much discussion – and derision – of the US supreme court’s recent forays into cellphones and the internet, but as more and more of these cases bubble up to the high chamber, including surveillance reform, we won’t be laughing for long: the future of technology and privacy law will undoubtedly be written over the next few years by nine individuals who haven’t “really ‘gotten to’ email” and find Facebook and Twitter “a challenge”.

And we certainly can’t count on Congress to address the issues.

This lack of basic understanding is alarming, because the supreme court is really the only branch of power poised to confront one of the great challenges of our time: catching up our laws to the pace of innovation, defending our privacy against the sprint of surveillance. The NSA is “training more cyberwarriors” as fast as it can, but our elected representatives move at a snail’s pace when it comes to the internet. The US Congress has proven itself unable to pass even the most uncontroversial proposals, let alone comprehensive NSA reforms: the legislative branch can’t even get its act together long enough to pass an update our primary email privacy law, which was written in 1986 – before the World Wide Web had been invented.

As the most recent edition of the Decode DC podcast illustrates, our legislators can’t even manage the flood of email and other messages they receive.

But while our “leaders” are bogged down with re-fighting political battles of the past, legislatures in other countries are looking forward.

By contrast, consider Finland. There, lawmakers are experimenting with a bold new way of reforming a law: crowdsourcing — meaning turning the legislative process over to the people.

Or consider Brazil, where there is now an experimental computer lab smack in the middle of the Parliament’s committee rooms. There, official staff hackers throw together apps and games and data visualizations to help Brazilians — and the members of Parliament — understand the legislative process.

So, any hope our politicians can get their act together and bring our laws into the 21st century? Probably not, especially when a third of their adult constituents (and too many of them) don’t even accept basic scientific concepts and believe in ghosts, UFOs and astrology.