Losing Control (But That’s Not Bad)

For our little group here in the overly-large school district, it’s been an unusually busy first month of the school year, due in large part to a flood of technology-related changes, some of which I’ve ranted about recently in this space.  Of course, we’re only at the starting point when it comes to students bringing their own devices to school, using Google Apps, figuring out if and how tablets might work in the classroom, online textbooks, and there’s more to come.

However, it’s also been been interesting, and somewhat amusing, to be in the middle of the planning for all these new pieces.  We are fortunate in our system to have plenty of support (both people and infrastructure), but it’s very clear that there are many concerns and doubts about these changes we’re trying to make.

While people offer a variety of reasons for their trepidation, I think almost all of it can be boiled down to one simple explanation: fear of losing control. Or at least concern over transferring some control to other people, especially the kids.

Take, for example, the team that’s responsible for implementing our use of Google Apps for Education this year.  Sitting in these meetings, it’s not hard to see that many in the group are somewhat uncertain about moving forward as they try to create a “standard support plan”, one that looks and acts the same as those from past experiences with the deployment of new software and services.

Much of that uncertainty, especially among the IT folks (who are in the majority in this group), stems from our district’s do-it-ourselves mindset when it comes to technology services. Our IT department builds and hosts just about every internal web service, and, if that’s not possible, they want complete control over the products. Outsourcing is a dirty word around here and suggestions of using “open source” (or anything not blessed by Microsoft) is practically grounds for firing.

However, when it comes to Google Apps, most of our “standard” processes don’t apply.  Although our district logo appears on every page, that’s about all the customization. The software itself belongs to Google. They make changes when they feel like it, without bothering to ask permission of our IT department, and often without notice.  Google controls 90% of this particular project.

Since, as I said, we’re just beginning, it remains to be seen how these tools and the rest are going to play in the schools. How much control are principals willing to allow their teachers? And more importantly, can teachers share control and responsibility with their kids?

I’m still confident about the possibilities, especially for the long run. It’s going to be fun watching this play out.

Act 2

Early in most action movies, there’s that scene where the hero discovers the villain and they tangle for the first time. Despite a valiant effort, at some point the villain is able to grab the critical plot point (world-threatening weapon, secret formula, important person), jump into a car/plane/spaceship and take off with the hero vainly in pursuit. He obviously believes he can catch the bad guy at that point but we know he’s got more work to do since this is only the first act of the film and we haven’t made a dent in our popcorn bucket.*

I’ve had a similar feeling about the use of instructional technology here in our overly-large school district. Except that it’s more like Groundhog Day where we are constantly stuck in act 1 of our determined effort to integrate the use of computers and networks into the practice of classroom teachers. Year after year fighting the same battles of not enough access for kids and too many administrators and teachers saying it’s important while still treating technology use as an optional nice-to-have extra.

However, as we head into the new school year, I have a real feeling of optimism with the idea in my warped little brain that we might be on the verge of making some significant progress, that we finally could move into act 2 (where the good guys start making some real progress in their quest to save the world), after a decade of running in slow motion repeats.

So, what’s new?

For one thing, this fall we will be seriously implementing a program to allow students to bring their own computing devices (BYOD) to school and use them in class. A few schools have been experimenting with this idea for a few years but now the concept has the blessing of the school board and the announced support of the top administrators, potentially making it harder for principals and teachers, especially in high schools, to avoid using technology for more than just standardized testing.

We will be pairing that with a Google Apps for Education site that makes accounts available to all staff and students in our middle and high schools, and all staff in elementary (ES students may be added during second semester). Which finally offers every teacher some good, consistent tools for collaboration and student communication, ones that are far better than the crappy Blackboard installation we are still stuck with.

Then there are a bunch of smaller items: we also have an option for schools to buy small quantities of tablets (iPad and Xoom), which may not seem like such a big deal but it represents a major crack in the rigid standardization efforts of our IT department (not to mention their anti-Apple attitude). Sometime in the fall we should have a robust web conferencing system available for schools to use, instead of playing around with a variety of free tools. Plus we’ll be making some major steps to implement online textbooks in middle and high schools, although the publishers still require us to buy the paper versions as well.

But probably the largest alteration to our traditional way of doing business around here is the fact that these policies are all being implemented at the same time and in all 200 schools (yes, we are that overly-large). As opposed to our usual system of small, cautious, controlled pilots that take many years to spread, and policies that discourage schools and teachers from experimenting with anything outside what’s been “approved”.

Although the plan is for these changes to happen with the start of the new school year, there’s always the possibility that someone at the top could change their mind. It’s clear from looking in the eyes of some of the people at our meetings that they are worried about the possibilities and already many of our leadership are reconsidering including smart phones in the BYOD program.

And, of course, most of our teachers don’t yet have any real understanding of what’s going to happen (some may have seen one of our assistant superintendent talking about this stuff on the news). A relatively small percentage of them will welcome the opportunities as well as the challenges, but the vast majority will need time to adjust, some far more than others.

But I’m still optimistic and very excited at the possibility of all these changes, and with the feeling of finally moving forward. However, I’m certainly not naive enough to believe that all of this will happen smoothly or that every classroom will be instantly transformed. It will take a lot of work and more than just one school year to help our staff adjust. More importantly, it will require a willingness on the part of all adults in the system to give up some control, especially to the students, and that’s likely to be the most disruptive part of this entire process (and a topic for another rant).

Anyway, I’m sure there will be many more twists to everything being planned around here for the coming school year but for now I’m just glad we may finally be able to see what happens in act 2 of this particular action picture.


*I know this analogy may fall apart if you start asking who or what is the villain in this piece so please just don’t think about it and play along. It’s all in my warped little head anyway. :-)