EdTech is Completely Optional

Last week the tech trainer in one of our schools was told by her AP that all the classroom computers would be put in storage next year while the building was being renovated.

In a district as big as ours, there are always some buildings undergoing renovation and schools do a good job of moving instructional spaces around the construction.

As far as technology is concerned, our IT department is pretty good at extending network connections into the “learning cottages” which serve as temporary classrooms.

Of course, there are always problems with some equipment damaged or stolen during major upheaval like that. But it’s usually far less than you might expect.

However, in this case, the decision of this AP didn’t disturb me as much as his justification.

In effect, he said that it didn’t matter whether students had access to computers since nothing in the curriculum makes their use mandatory.

How do you argue with that? He’s right.

Look through all of the materials distributed by our curriculum specialists and, other than a few middle and high school classes, there is no mention of technology being a necessary tool for teaching anything.

We don’t need a connection to the web for learning and students are not required – or even encouraged – to present their ideas to an audience outside the four walls of their classroom.

There are certainly some teachers in our system who make excellent use of the technology they have available every day. For them, losing their computers for a week would be difficult.

However, except for administrators expecting teachers to use email, most classrooms would function just fine if all computers were locked away.

How do you argue with that?

Classmate, Version 2

Intel has released the second iteration of their Classmate PC and it appears to be a much different machine than the one I got to play with a couple of months ago, although not much better.

It now sounds less like a low cost education laptop designed to challenge the XO and more like a pretty run of the mill, inexpensive consumer machine.

The main differences are that the Classmate now includes a 9-inch LCD display, a six-cell battery, 512MB of memory, a 30GB HDD, and an integrated webcam. The second-generation Classmate PCs are built on the Intel Celeron M processor with 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and mesh-network capabilities; future Classmate PCs will be built with Atom processors. Of course, the Classmate PC still supports Microsoft Windows XP, but variants of a Linux-based operating system will also be available.

The OLPC News blog has much more about the new Classmate and comparisons to the XO.

However, based on the first-generation Classmate model loaned to me (smaller screen, 2gb of memory/flash storage, a slower processor, no web cam), this pretty much sums up my assessment.

But other than those few classroom tools, the Classmate hardly feels like a leap forward in educational hardware as much as a gray, shrunken version of any typical Intel-powered laptop.

Which doesn’t mean the XO is necessarily ready for the classroom. While very innovative, it does have plenty of quirks, not to mention usability issues, for both adults and kids.

But there’s no way I’m giving up my little green machine!

Reporting to the Board

That the meetings of our school board are carried on the local cable system is rather remarkable if you think about it.

After all, how many workers are allowed to watch the board of directors of their company making decisions that affect their jobs.

And, of course, I waste the opportunity and don’t watch them very often. But I did tonight.

Tonight many of my colleagues helped put together the report delivered to the board by our big board on one of their goals, the one that mentions technology.

Students will use technology to access, communicate, apply knowledge, and to foster creativity.

Overall, the presentation was a pretty good representation of what’s going on in our schools, a mixture of the mundane along with snapshots of a few classrooms where teachers are experimenting with the newer tools (go Jenny!).

While the show itself was much better than these things usually are (go Karen!), the most interesting part of the meeting was the reactions of the board members.

As you might expect, a few of them were “amazed” and “dazzled” by the examples and offered up the usual cliches about how kids work so well with all these tools.

I wonder if the member who praised the use of Facebook in her business world realizes that site, and other social networking sites where “the kids hang out”, are blocked in the schools she helps to manage.

And then there was the member who express concern about the lack of keyboarding instruction, stating that “touch typing was the most valuable skill I learned in school”. Really? Not much of an education.

But I was also impressed that several on the board asked some excellent and tough questions that went beyond the dazzle to the issue of whether all the technology is actually improving student learning.

To his credit, our boss offered the only honest answer: we really can’t quantify an increase in achievement due to the use of computers and interactive boards.

Since “increase in achievement” is code for higher test scores, I doubt he will be able to come back in a year as requested by one member with hard data to demonstrate such improvement.

Nevertheless, questions about the effectiveness of instructional technology are ones that seriously need to be asked. We’re just not going to get many answers from a multiple choice test.

Now, getting back to the school board goal that was the focus of tonight’s presentation.

The reality is that most teachers in our overly-large school district already have access to many of the tech tools that can help students learn to “access, communicate, [and] apply knowledge” and which can be used to “foster creativity”.

What we lack is the curriculum, teacher training programs, and administrative support that would allow them to be used for those purposes.

However, I do love the language of the goal.

It’s language that opens the door for us, with the school board’s blessing, to encourage and support those unique teachers who are willing to experiment outside the number 2 pencil bubble.

I Could Be Wrong

In a comment to my recent rant about seeing little impact from technology in the classroom, Mark believes I am.

He mentions several schools in our overly-large system and then says

I can’t speak intelligently about other schools, but while these schools may not fit the model of instruction (or is it technology integration) that you wish for, these are schools where teachers (sometimes led by their instructional technology specialists) are posing and attempting to answer questions along the lines of: how do we best provide a learning environment for our students and how do we assess our success and our students’ success? And the metric is not simply state test results or AYP results. I would argue that wholesale changes are happening in the way teachers view their curricula and their role in it.

I know there are schools, the ones he lists among them, where some teachers are trying to make changes to the traditional classroom practice.

And many more of them certainly understand that their role is being altered by many different forces. I would, however, challenge the use of the term “wholesale” when it comes to any changes in the way high schools work.

But I realize my observations in high school classrooms are limited to only three or four (including one of those Mark notes) and are usually very brief snapshots.

As I noted in a discussion about the use of interactive whiteboards in classrooms, I would love to be proved wrong in my skepticism. I want to see technology being used in wonderful ways to help kids learn.

I want to see some classrooms that will demonstrate just how mistaken my ranting really is. In the case of the whiteboards, I’m still waiting but still open minded.

Mark continues his comment by touching on an issue that is a huge road block to any meaningful change for high schools everywhere, not just in our system.

I would agree that if curriculum areas were less strictly partitioned from each other, there would be more opportunities to learn across a swath of disciplines, but I don’t see that kind of change happening anytime soon.

The compartmentalization of knowledge, which extends into most universities as well, is totally counterintuitive to how information is used in the real world. In the digital age, that disparity is only becoming more pronounced every day.

He’s right that the situation will probably remain the same for the near term but until the traditional curriculum is drastically modified, it will be difficult to make other alterations.

And then Mark makes this statement with which I totally disagree.

Finally, technology is but one spoke in the wheel. It’s just a tool, nothing more than leverage, a force multiplier for what you’re already doing.

The powerful tools we now have available make it possible to go way beyond simple reinforcing what we’re already doing. They provide communications links that enable teachers and students to connect with and learn from the world.

If all we do with the computers and networks put in our schools over the past decade is multiply the status quo, then we’ve wasted a lot of money, time and effort.

I know much of the crap I write is very idealistic, maybe even unrealistic. But while we are making small incremental changes, it would be nice to keep a vision of what education could and should be in the viewfinders.

As to Mark’s closing crack about Macs and ICF filters, I’ll save that for another rant. :-)

Did You Notice The Change?

At our office staff meeting last week we were asked to offer some statements about what technology in the classroom looked like in 1994, looks like today, and what it will look like in 2020.

In case you haven’t already been hit over the head enough times with the 2020 concept, that’s the year our current kindergarten students are scheduled to graduate from high school.

All of them perfect, of course, since that will happen in 2014 by decree of NCLB.

Anyway, the purpose of the discussion was to give our director some talking points on the subject to take to a meeting with the assistant superintendent the next day.

I really wasn’t able to offer her much in the way of positive sound bites.

My co-conspirator Karen and I were the nay-sayers in the room, coming to the conclusion that very little about teaching and learning has changed in in those 13 years and that technology has had very little influence on basic classroom practice.

And the way things are going with American education, the classroom of 2020 will look very much like those of today, and, for that matter 1994.

In our overly-large school district, computers have certainly had a big impact on administrative functions. Email and general web use is routine for just about everyone, as is online access to some HR functions.

In the high schools, everyone uses electronic attendance and grade books. The majority of our elementary teachers have become very comfortable with using laptops since most have had one for three or four years.

Sure, we’ve put a lot of technology into our school buildings since 1994.

But has any of it actually affected student learning? Has it changed the way teachers teach?

Of course, there are little pockets where computers and networks have made an impact. Corners where teachers and students are making great use of the tools available.

However, most of the classrooms I’ve observed, especially in the high schools, are organized and run pretty much as they were thirteen years ago.

Or twenty-three years ago. Or thirty-three years ago. Or…