EdTech Déjà Vu

If last week was a “normal” end of June, I would have spent five or six days attending the ISTE Conference, this year in San Antonio. This year I had to skip the event and join the #notatiste crowd.

But I wonder just how much I missed by not being there in person.

I certainly regret not having the rare opportunity to see friends and colleagues face-to-face. Beyond that, it wasn’t hard to keep up with the big ideas being tossed around in the convention center, thanks to the active stream of tweets, posts, podcasts, and video.

1Anyway, one concept that seemed to be all over the place was “personalization”. Presenters discussed how to personalize instruction. Vendors offered thousands of products to help the process. Visionaries talked of how artificial intelligence (AI) would personalize education.

But to me all of that seemed very, very familiar. Haven’t we tried this before?

Twenty years ago, when I was transitioning out of the classroom and into edtech training, I worked with several elementary schools whose principals had bought into a system called SuccessMaker. It was an expensive “programmed learning” system contained on dozens of CDs that was supposed to improve student learning in reading and math.

The software presented the students with activities wrapped with animated characters and, based on the child’s response, moved them through the lessons. The developer recommended that students should spend 20 minutes a day on their system. I remember clearly a trainer from the company promising teachers they would see tremendous improvement in test scores very quickly. And that students would be highly motivated to learn because they like using technology.

So, how is that system different from those that were being promoted at ISTE? I’m not sure much has really changed in those twenty years.

Those new “personalized” learning systems on the ISTE vendor floor likely use much more sophisticated algorithms to tailor lessons for students. They certainly collect far more data, sending it to the cloud to be processed along with information on tens of thousand students. As opposed to relying on the basic information provided by the teacher and storing individual student records on a single, non-networked machine.

Plus the marketing hasn’t changed much. Developers still promise miracle jumps in test scores. They still emphasize high student engagement because “technology”.

And, as with those systems from two decades ago, none of the learning is really personal.

Ignoring the Rules

The New York Times recently published a long front-page story about how Google “took over” the classroom. The writer’s primary focus is on concerns about the amount of student data the company is collecting in exchange for their free tools, and what they plan to do with it, although she doesn’t get many answers from them.

However, the part I found most interesting was about how those Google’s tools arrived in many classrooms in the first place. IT directors from Chicago, Oregon, and Fairfax County (aka our overly-large school district) complain that representatives of the company went straight to teachers with products like Google Classroom instead going through channels.

He said that Google had directly contacted certain Fairfax teachers who had volunteered to beta-test Classroom, giving them early access to the app. In so doing, he said, the company ignored the Google settings he had selected that were supposed to give his district control over which new Google services to switch on in its schools.

And why do so many teachers ignore IT’s rules and go through the formal process of getting those services approved?

Lots of reasons, but in our district it’s mostly because they know that the wheels of our bureaucracy grind very slowly. The formal evaluation system for new tech products can take years, especially for anything that hasn’t been blessed by Microsoft.

IT grudgingly went along with the use of Google Drive in the classroom after hundreds of teachers started using it on their own. Some of our innovative people very quickly recognized the value in online collaborative tools and jumped at the opportunity soon after it was released (only five years ago). One school even had the audacity to register their own domain to make things easier for their staff and students.

This would be a good time to point out that there’s no such thing as “free”, especially when it comes to Google. Even if the latest tool looks like a gift from the gods, teachers still have a responsibility to be cautious about allowing their students to pour data into these systems (see also the recent news about Edmodo).

On the other side of things, district administrators also need to understand that some of the best resources for evaluating new technologies are the connected, innovative educators working in their schools. Ignoring their expertise and judgement is going to result in them ignoring you.

[Apologies in advance to Doug for this post. :-)]

Getting Our Priorities Straight

EdSurge, an organization that tracks the edtech industry,2 is covering a conference called the ASU+GSV Summit. Here is the opening paragraph from their report of the first day.

Bankers, lawyers, researchers and policymakers. Administrators, entrepreneurs and the Golden State Warriors. The ASU+GSV Summit, now in its eighth year, has assembled yet another potent cocktail of education industry stakeholders from different walks of life. (We’re kidding about the Warriors, who just happened to be staying at the venue hotel prior to Game 4 of the NBA playoffs.)

Notice anything missing from that “potent cocktail of education industry stakeholders”? Like teachers, parents, and the most important stakeholders of all, students?

Just the fact that they use the phrase “education industry” pretty much tells you all you need to know about the priorities of EdSurge and this conference. But if that’s not enough, how about this little observation.

Yet among the more than 3,000 people who poured into Salt Lake City for the event, the bankers were visibly in full force.

In the hierarchy of edtech, bankers are far more important than teachers. And for the entrepreneurs excited about their invites to “meetings in private suites” with those bankers, profits are far more important than children.

Keeping IT Happy

In a story about Microsoft’s education event this week, Wired made one good point about instructional technology. That had absolutely nothing to do with instruction.

The article’s focus was on the new, simpler version of Windows, called 10 S, that the writer says is aimed at competing with Google’s Chrome OS.

Chromebooks have been so successful because they’re hard to hack and easy for IT people to deal with; Windows 10 S appears to at least try doing the same.

picture of a laptop with chain and padlockAnd that sentence offers one primary reason why technology in the classroom is so screwed up: many, if not most, schools and districts make purchasing decisions based on what will make IT happy.

IT wants devices that make their jobs easier, something that is easy to clone, lock down, and control. From a central, remote location, please. The needs and wants of teachers are secondary. And students? Well, we rarely ask them about anything to do with what goes into their education anyway, so their opinion doesn’t count.

Certainly there is a place in schools for Chromebooks and whatever Windows 10 S turns out to be.2 But I strongly disagree that this computing-lite approach is “great news for students”.

Windows 10 S and Chromebooks simply represent one more way to standardize and maintain control over the learning process, while appearing to be forward looking.

What is Instructional Technology?

The following is a slightly modified post I wrote for the Virginia Society for Technology in Education (VSTE), our state affiliate of ISTE (full disclosure, I am a member of the VSTE Board of Directors). If you arrived here from that link, welcome. Please feel free to comment and let me know just how far off base I am with this rant. :)


A primary mission of VSTE is, of course, to help empower educators to make great use of technology for teaching and learning. Many of our members even have “instructional technology”, or some variation on the phrase, in their job title.

But what exactly is “instructional” technology? As opposed another variety of tech, like the 1977 Ford Pinto.

Ask around and you’ll probably get many different answers to that question, but, since this is my post, here is my twitter-length definition:

That would exclude the student information system many teachers use every day. Certainly the online grade book, attendance system, and other tools in most SIS packages is an essential part of classroom management. But it’s not used by students in any part of their learning.

We also drop the learning management system (LMS) many districts provide for their teachers. Think Blackboard, Edmodo, or Google Classroom. Also not “instructional” technology.

I suppose you could make the case that students might use parts of some LMS directly for their learning (a blogging tool, for example). But that’s not how they are commonly used. Most LMS function as organizational and distribution systems for content pushed to students, again to improve classroom management.

Also not “instructional”: response tools (Kahoot, Socrative), interactive whiteboards, video tutorials (Khan Academy), and a long, long list of curriculum games. Although I’ve seen a few (very few) special cases, student interaction with these resources is almost always as consumers, responding to material provided by publishers and teachers, not using them as creators.

And for me, that is the fundamental component for any technology to be considered instructional: control. When I say “directly by students”, I expect them to have some meaningful control as to how the technology – device, software, website, whatever – is used in the learning process.

So, what would I consider some examples of “instructional” technology?

That word processing program most students use would count, but only if they have some decision about what they will write. It would be even better if their writing was connected to the web, allowing them to present their ideas to a larger, more meaningful audience. One without a red pen.

We could include one of those slide show presentation programs, but only if the student has some control over the content. And again, let’s extend that control and let them determine the tools that will allow them to best explain their ideas to an audience beyond the walls of their classroom.

Then there are the devices that many students bring to school everyday, the ones that too many of their teachers still consider as the antithesis of “instructional”. Beyond providing access to vast amounts of information, those so-called phones are also powerful creative tools that can be used to record, edit, and distribute still images, audio, and video. Tools students can use in many, many ways to communicate their thoughts, ideas, and learning.

Of course, all of the above is only my opinion. But what do you think? How would you define “instructional technology” (or it’s shorter, equally vague sibling “edtech”)? Tweet your ideas to @timstahmer and @vste and let’s have that conversation. Or post a longer comment to this post on my blog.

Because in the end, the terminology we use when discussing these issues – with our colleagues, the community, legislators – does matter. We must be very clear when advocating for the use of technology in our schools and why it makes a difference for students.