Skip The Tech Hype

Every year during the first week of January, the Consumer Electronics Show takes place in Las Vegas. It’s a huge event with thousands of companies spending millions of dollars to show off their stuff. Producing a flood of over-hyped media reports on all the “new”, “innovative”, “amazing” tech products.

But how much of this is worth the attention of anyone outside the business? Do us electronics consumers really need to know about this stuff?

When I look at this year’s show, I see a lot of things no one needs, and few people will want. It’s a Sharper Image catalog brought to life, the ultimate “Why? Because I can!”

The tech reporter who started his post with that thought, continues to explain why we can safely ignore some of the “big trends” at CES. And I certainly agree with him that the “idea of MS Office in the car is truly frightening”.

BTW, has anyone declared drones to be the next revolution in edtech? I’m sure I missed that announcement.

Can Education Keep Up With Tech World?

In an opinion piece for CNN, a “security technologist” asks “Can laws keep up with tech world?’. If you accept Betteridge’s law of headlines, the answer of course is no. But the relationship between the legal and technical is certainly far more complex than a binary response anyway.

Traditionally, new technologies were adopted slowly over decades. There was time for people to figure them out, and for their social repercussions to percolate through society. Legislatures and courts had time to figure out rules for these technologies and how they should integrate into the existing legal structures.

That’s just not true anymore. A new technology can go from zero to a hundred million users in a year or less. That’s just too fast for the political or legal process. By the time they’re asked to make rules, these technologies are well-entrenched in society.

Much of what he’s saying, including the original question, could very well apply to technology in education. In their time movies, radio, television, video tape, even computers were new technologies that had some impact on the classroom. But these technologies worked their way into society over years and decades, giving schools plenty of time to figure out how each innovation fit into their instructional model.

As with the legal structures, that’s just not true anymore in education.

In less than a decade, we find large numbers of students (if not a majority of them) coming to school with powerful communications devices in their pockets, devices can connect them to most of the world’s knowledge, both the good and bad. Those new technologies that rapidly go from “zero to a hundred million users” are often through the classroom door before teachers have even heard of them.

As much as school administrators would like, the solution is not to slow down the entry of technology into the learning process so we can carefully design new research, craft new policies, and edit curriculum. Educators do not have that kind of control anymore. It’s also far too late to try banning the tech from the learning process.

Even if we did have the time, there’s really no way force these new technologies to fit into our traditional instructional model, not even with special “walled garden”, “EDU” versions. That teacher-controlled delivery of information, paired with curriculum-approved context doesn’t work anymore, no matter how hard we work to graft technology into it. Our traditional system is not one that will prepare students for a world “moving too fast for the political and legal process”.

So, regardless of Betteridge’s law, the answer to the title question of this post is certainly no. Which means we need reconsider what part schools play in that current tech world, and how we can help students learn to successfully adapt in the world of whatever comes next.

The Magic of Technology

I haven’t been paying much attention to the perpetual presidential campaign, beyond Stephen Colbert’s brilliant Hungry for Power Games segments and a few other trusted sources.

One of which is Wired, where a recent short post offers a few examples of just how clueless our national leadership really is when it comes to technology. In that article, the writer highlights some crazy ideas (out of many more I’m sure) that came from the most recent Republican debate.

Like Donald Trump’s idea about “closing areas” of the internet “where we are at war with somebody”. As with many things he says, this proposal is very short on details.

It’s not exactly clear what Trump means by “closing areas where we are at war with somebody,” and we’re not exactly sure Trump knows what he means, either. Our best guess is that he’s saying it’s possible for the US to shut down Internet access in countries like Syria. That’s problematic, not only because it would shut off millions of innocent people from the Internet, but also because the US simply doesn’t control the Internet in countries like Syria, and neither do US companies.

Then we have former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina who claimed that the tech industry would be “happy” to assist intelligence agencies like the NSA in the “war on terror” (just as she did at HP, apparently by agreeing to sell them a bunch of servers), it’s just that no one has asked them.

But the bigger problem is Fiorina’s assertion that the tech community hasn’t been asked to be part of this work. In reality, government has not only asked technologists to be part of the counterterrorism effort, it’s begged them. Just last week President Obama called on tech companies to work with law enforcement in the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack. Meanwhile, FBI director James Comey urged companies like Apple to reconsider end-to-end encryption.

But those were just the most recent appeals in the encryption battle that has been building between Silicon Valley and Washington DC. For years, tech companies like Apple and Google have fought tirelessly against government proposals that would require them to build so-called “backdoors” into their encrypted technology. They argue that this would make their technology–and their users vulnerable–and so far at least, they’ve won.

Hopefully, they will continue to win the fight against those “backdoors”, since there’s no such thing as an opening that only good guys can use. Plus it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad.

But no matter. The other candidates on stage “with the exception of, perhaps, Cruz and Senator Rand Paul” also “seem far more interested in restoring the country’s surveillance capabilities than they are in protecting Americans’ privacy.”

Finally, it’s not exactly current technology but when it comes to “carpet bombing” and fighting ISIS, at least one candidate has a lot of catching up to do, not to mention with the legal and moral issues involved.

The biggest problem in all this, however, is that far too many of our leaders, on that debate stage and elsewhere, are ignorant of the internet, digital encryption, and more. They seem to ascribe magical properties to the technology, believing that just using the authority of the president, technology can be used to shape the world to fit their vision.

Blame the Smartphone, Again.

Say what you want about the writings of Post education columnist Jay Mathews (and over the years I have), he does manage to stumble across some insight occasionally. Even if he’s trying to make roughly the opposite point. His most recent example is his column from yesterday’s paper.1

A high school teacher here in Fairfax County (formerly my employer and aka the overly-large school district) complains that student responses in his government classes have been “crumbling” since “smartphones and other such devices were allowed a few years ago.”. Evidentally, before this “invasion”, discussions on his lessons were thoughtful and lively. In just three years, which was about the time BYOD entered the picture, kids have changed that much.

Of course, this is just an observation. He and another teacher are writing a book about the “decline in critical thinking as digital technologies grow”. However, they “admit they have mostly anecdotal data” to use for their work but are are certain – certain I tell you! – that “brain research eventually will back them up”.

Ok, this is nothing new. I heard from plenty of teachers who blamed kids carrying smartphone for all sorts of ills. But I also know many educators who view the spread of personal connected devices in the classroom as an opportunity to enhance student learning and improve their own teaching.

Anyway, getting back to Mathews purpose in this column. He is trying to use the story told by these teachers as proof that technology is “degrading discourse” in the classroom and “hurting students”, to use two phrases from just the headline. But at the end he drops in his personal biases when it comes to technology and completely kills his authority.

As a journalist, my most pressured years are behind me. I can have a rewarding professional and personal life even though I don’t use smartphones or tablets, never tweet or don’t go on Facebook. I am excused of such eccentricities because of my age.

Two things: first, as someone pretty close to his “age”, I really resent the idea that you get “excused” from learning, and participating in the real world, because you’ve passed a certain checkpoint in life. In schools, we use this reasoning far too often to excuse those “older” teachers from the requirements of understanding how connected devices are changing the process of learning for their students. And from actually using those new tools to better connect with those kids.

And second, I’m not a journalist, but I do understand how radically that profession is being changed as a result of technology and social media. Refusing to acknowledge and at least attempt to use such “eccentricities” in his own work should disqualify Mathews from analyzing any changes they are forcing on the American education system.

I say “should” because he will be back soon with more nonsense about the need for traditional educational practices (probably having to do with AP or charter schools) and the Post will print it.

Something is Missing

It’s been a couple of years since the Los Angeles Unified School District received national attention for the roll out of their 1:1 device program. And not attention in a good way.

This past July a group of researchers released an assessment of the program that offered “lessons on what not to do when rolling out technology and devices across a large school district”.

It’s long, very academic, and full of suggestions that should have been obvious from the start. Like better planning, communications, and professional development.

However, towards the very end of the executive summary the report arrives at what was probably at the core of the problem with LA’s initiative.

At its heart, the ITI [Instructional Technology Initiative] is about both technology and instruction, and effective management of it required coordination and communication between technical and instructional teams and leaders. The structure of LAUSD (and many other districts) is such that the instructional division is separate from the technical division. These divisions did not seem reach a level of collaboration that would be needed to avoid the challenges ITI encountered, and on some issues seemed to be unable to resolve differences in perspective (for example, on issues related to Apple IDs).

As I’ve ranted about more than a few times, Fairfax County, my former employer (aka the overly-large school district) is at the beginning of the process to implement a 1:1 program. But long before that, they already had cemented in place that same problem from LAUSD.

That “coordination and communication” between the technical and instruction departments is tenuous at best. With IT making instructional decisions, primarily due to a lack of leadership on the instructional side.

IT’s goal is for these 1:1 devices to be cheap and easy to manage, and I don’t blame them for that. Instruction’s goal is far less clear.

In the shiny new “strategic plan”, the superintendent and school board have set a target of 2017 for every student to have a device. So one motivation is that the boss said to do it.

At the same time we hear the super, her assistant supers, principals and others speak vaguely about future ready, 21st century skills, digital natives, blah, blah, blah, while continuing to foster, encourage, and support a test prep culture in schools.

Completely missing on the instruction side in this project is a crystal clear articulation of how giving each student a device will transform instruction and improve their learning. Much more difficult than IT’s job.