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.

Forgetting the Other 1

One more post about 1:1 computing programs and I’ll let the topic rest for a while.

In his post yesterday, Doug says he is advocating in his district to give a computing device to all students in grades 6-12. But he refuses to call it a 1:1 program.

Instead of emphasizing the device (which that name certainly does), he wants everyone to understand that the primary purpose of whatever is selected is to enable students to have 24/7 access to digital resources.

Watching our 1:1 project unfold here in the overly-large school district, I completely understand his concerns.

Planning is led by the IT department, due in large part to abdication of responsibility by leaders of the Department of Instruction, and discussions are all about which device to buy2, how they will be distributed, security, maintenance, and pretty much everything other than how they will be used for student learning.

Even if we do arrive at the topic of instruction, often at the end of the meeting when everyone is packing up to leave, it’s always in the context of how the devices will reinforce and support teachers traditional practice.

Oh, and there’s one other missing element in all this planning: student voices. One of those 1’s represents kids, but we never ask them what they want from all this. Instead we spend most of our time worrying about the other 1, the device.

Chipping Away at the IT Barriers

A few months ago I ranted about how our IT department is adamant about not wanting Chromebooks to be used in our schools. If a technology is not blessed by Microsoft, they really don’t want to talk about it.

Now, however, things may be changing – a little – whether IT likes it or not.

A small group of principals here in the overly-large school district decided to bypass the usual bureaucratic channels, along with all the IT denials, and took their case for Chromebooks to directly our Deputy Superintendent (with a great deal of support and encouragement from our little cheering section).

To our surprise, he approved their proposal to purchase a limited number of the Google-based devices to test in their schools. The initiative only involves a few classrooms in five six schools so we certainly aren’t talking about any major shifts in thinking. But potentially it does represents a big crack in the IT barriers.

Of course, nothing is ever simple in our world. As you might imagine, our CIO2 is not happy.

The “Nonstandard Computer Exception Request” she signed (required by regulations) includes this pissy little declaration: “No requests for hardware or software support associated with these devices will be made to IT personnel.” It also forbids the schools from using the standard Google administrative dashboard to manage the Chromebooks, conveying the message: this is our sandbox, keep your crappy toys out.

So, IT is essentially treating these as BYOD devices2 and clearly trying to set up this project for failure. We on the instructional side, are doing our subversive best to make this initiative a success, with a big assist from our Google Education rep. More to come as we see how things play out.

One more thing about Chromebooks.

I’m not going to tell you that they are the ideal instructional device or that they will magically transform learning in our schools. They have plenty of flaws as a classroom tool3. Same with the iPad, another popular choice by schools over the past couple of years and also hobbled for effective use by the barriers erected by IT.

No computing device by itself is going to change public education. The technology must be accompanied by a whole new approach to pedagogy and curriculum, along with huge shifts in thinking from teachers, administrators, parents, and kids.

And, at least in our district, a major alteration in IT attitude – from obstruction to support.