Spray and Pray Technology

The cover story of today’s Washington Post magazine, one of their two or three times a year “education editions”, asks Do kids learn more when they trade in composition books for iPads?.

Of course, the writer doesn’t really address that question since this is more of a big picture story about the one-to-one programs of two local districts and about how a few teachers are using devices in their instruction.

But the article does manage to highlight several major problems that have come with adding technology to the “normal” classroom. First, is the fact that there is little research showing that computers improved student learning.

Research on technology’s impact on K-12 achievement is limited and mixed, partly because it’s difficult to isolate the role of technology from other things that occur in a classroom, says Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan professor who studies technology use in schools.

Darryl Joyner, who helps lead Arlington’s technology initiative, says while there’s no “direct line” between test scores and digital devices or any other tool, research shows engagement is linked to performance.

So, like Mr. Joyner, many tech advocates look past the lack of evidence, that direct line, and go with the anecdotal observation that students are “excited to learn” to justify buying all the devices.

Or you have the “preparing students for the tech world” argument.

“These kids are going to leave school and enter a world where technology is ubiquitous,” says Cathy Stocker, a PTA leader in Bethesda. “Their ability to access that technology in school gets them ready for that world. I understand there needs to be balance. But to me the Chromebook is a powerful tool.”

Except most kids already live in that “world where technology is ubiquitous”. We just do very little to help teachers adjust their classroom practice to incorporate that world and to make good use of the power that comes from the devices and network connections.

“It’s a major movement,” says Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association. What’s important, she and others say, is to adjust teaching methods to make learning deeper and more engaging. “If all you’re doing is automating the old practices … you didn’t change anything,” Flynn says.

Too many school systems buy big before thinking through how devices can be used to improve teaching and learning, says Leslie Wilson, chief executive of the One-to-One Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps implement tech programs. Her organization urges schools to avoid “the spray and pray approach,” and to emphasize learning rather than devices, Wilson says.

The lesson activity examples described in this article reflect that automating old practices. They are little different from those that teachers were using twenty years ago and really don’t require technology. Substituting Google for the reference section of the library and doing poster projects on iPads instead of chart paper does not justify giving a computer to every student.

However, the biggest problem with this article is that it ignores the fact that districts in the DC area (including Fairfax County, the largest and my former employer) have been using the “spray and pray approach” for decades. Spending lots of money on new devices, software, and websites while changing little or nothing about what and how students learn.

Replacing standard desktop and laptop machines with Chromebooks and iPads is no different.

Educational Gimmicks

Remember when the superintendent for Los Angeles Unified School District had big plans to give an iPad to all 640,000 of their students?

Well, they have a new superintendent.

“I don’t believe we can afford a device for every student,” Cortines told the Los Angeles Times, “Education shouldn’t become the gimmick of the year.” Cortines added that LAUSD had never made a definitive plan for how teachers would have used the iPads during instruction, nor had it planned how it was going to pay for the tablets over time.

I’m not sure what he means by education “becoming” the gimmick of the year since, for as long as I can remember, we’ve had a new gimmick almost every year. Sometimes more than one.

And that gimmick was often some kind of technology, distributed with vague plans for instructional use, and no sustainable funding plan.

Don’t Blame the iPad. Blame Yourself.

2013 was the year of the iPad in education. Lost of posts and articles declared that the device was going to transform learning and completely alter classroom practice. Plus lists of 23 apps that you must have!

Last year came the backlash, as usually happens with edtech revolutions.

A good deal of it was driven by stories of the poorly designed plan to distribute iPads to all students in Los Angeles1 but there were plenty of other negative voices. Also, a new edtech miracle device was crowned: the Chromebook.

Among the many complaints about the iPad, one of the loudest around here is that the devices are difficult to manage. And by “manage”, of course, we mean control.

There’s a reason why Windows is so beloved by the enterprise, and by IT departments in overly-large school districts that love to use that “enterprise” designation. The machines are relatively easy to clone and lock down. Which also makes many teachers happy as well since every screen is identical and every student gets the same “experience”. Certainly if our head of IT had her way, every computing device in the system would be identical and controlled from HQ.

However, if you’re critical of the iPads you bought because they’re difficult to control, because it’s hard to use them to duplicate the lab experience you love so much, don’t blame Apple.

Blame yourself.

The iPad was always designed as a device for the individual. That’s the way it’s always been marketed, as the most personal of personal computers, for fun, creation, and personal learning. Sure some promotional material shows iPads being used in classrooms by happy kids and teachers, but there’s no reason the sales people would mislead us, right?

If you expect Apple to change the way iPads function just because so many schools are buying them (as I’ve heard more than one IT person declare they must, MUST!), then you haven’t been paying attention. That’s not the company philosophy. Apple decides how the device works and users accept that. They wouldn’t mind selling millions of them to businesses2 but they’re leaving the lockdown control part up to IBM (and who will charge “enterprises” big bucks for it).

Ok, so none of this is meant to be a criticism of the iPad. I know the device has it’s flaws but so does any other computing choice you can name. They just aren’t big enough to inhibit my enjoyment. I love mine and in the almost four years I’ve had one, it has become an essential part of my digital life.

However, if those flaws are insurmountable for you, if iPad doesn’t fit into your model of an instructional devices, just don’t buy them. Get one running one of the many variations of the Android OS. Kindles. Amplify. Windows 8. Try Chromebooks. Forget tablets altogether and stick with a generic Windows PC.3

But you’re looking for the ideal device for instructional computing, the one that will be super easy to manage (aka control), the miracle worker that will turn all of your students into creative, innovative, high-test-scoring, coding, data-generating wonder kids, right?

Just wait. The next revolutionary educational technology should be announced any day now.

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.

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.