Observing From The Outside

It has been three years since I left the overly-large school district to set out on a new life as a drain on society.1 Time really does fly when you’re having fun.

But the fact that I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day minutia of instructional technology in the system doesn’t mean I’m not interested anymore. I just have to learn about what’s going on in the school district the same way most of the community does.

There’s the little bit of education-related information that is reported in the local news, although that’s usually only when something bad happens.I can get a little bit of insight from the email newsletter the district sends each week, but that usually reads more like a pile of press releases than any real inside information.

More interesting, and probably more insightful, are the tidbits I get when talking to friends and former colleagues who are still working somewhere in the system. Although, in most of those conversations, we avoid discussing work in favor of more fun topics.

Anyway, out of curiosity about what has been going on, last spring I dropped in on a community meeting about the new one-to-one computing initiative the district is planning to roll out in the fall of 2019 (with the somewhat bland, focus-grouped title FCPSOn).

In my past life I would have been involved with planning this kind of meeting. I was rarely one of the people doing the presentation since my boss knew better than to put me in front of a crowd. I was prone to answer questions honestly instead of sticking to the script.

This particular presentation wasn’t much different from those I remember. Planned and edited by teams in several different offices and led by an assistant superintendent who clearly was working from his briefing notes, rather than a firm understanding of the topic.

In his opening statement, he told us that they wanted very much to hear from the community and we would be spending most of the two hours on discussion and feedback. He then spent the next 90 minutes running through his slide show or having groups of teachers and students talk about their use of technology.

I found those examples especially interesting. They included a mishmash of ideas that provided little or no support for the plan they came to sell. Does each student need a computer for the class to hold a book chat with students in another school? Is publishing an online newspaper innovative if it is directed by the teacher and not seen outside the school?3

The students involved in these segments didn’t help make the case. Many identified as being part of the IB program at the school where the meeting was held, meaning they were certainly not the “average” kid. And their examples of the great use of technology already in their learning included G Suite, Quizlet, Padlet, and even PowerPoint decks posted to Blackboard as.

Missing from the presentations was any discussion about why putting devices in the hands of every student would result in better learning. Nothing about how the district would make changes to the curriculum, pedagogy guides, or assessment as a result of the increased power and capability.

As you might expect, there were many references to “personalizing” or “customizing” learning, but nothing about how students would have a direct say in what they learn or how they learn it. The concept of “flipped” classrooms, in which students watch videos instead of teacher lecture/demos, doesn’t do it. As with most of the other examples, flipped is more about changing teaching rather than changing learning.

On that topic of student input, I found it interesting that the district-created video about “student voices” was dominated by adults taking about giving students voice. The images of 1-1 classrooms showed students in classic rows or groups of four, with everyone working on individual computers. And the students presenters themselves were obviously carefully selected to make the point of the adults who planned the session.

When the assistant super finally finished and asked for discussion from the audience, it was clear the parents and community members (who seemed to be a minority among all the school administrators, teachers, and tech support folks) didn’t want to stick to the script.

Many were concerned about the amount of screen time kids were going to get, especially in elementary school. They wanted to know how taking computers home would increase student stress levels. Is it really necessary to give every kid a device to achieve the district learning goals?

All very good questions. The assistant super and all his assistants in attendance had few answers, and seemed genuinely surprised by the pushback. Maybe if they had done a little reading outside of the bubble, they might have anticipated it.

I have a few questions myself, about 1-1 in general and this particular plan that I never got to ask during this community meeting. But this post has already run too long, so I’ll save them for another rant.

I’ll also be digging a little deeper into what happens with the planning and implementation of FCPSOn over the next year, at least as best I can. It will be interesting to see what this all looks like from the outside.

Image of smiling 1-1 students in a Northern Nevada school district, from an article in the local newspaper.

1. That “drain on society” line is how a former Virginia legislator once referred to the teacher retirement system. Fortunately, he is a “former”.

2. Rule number one for anyone working in Fairfax, and I assume the other area districts, is to avoid making headlines in the Post.

3. I know the IT department still does not allow student work to be published outside the “walled garden” without lots of review and permissions at the district level.

Change Where Nothing Changes

I’ve written more than a few times in this space about Fairfax County Schools, my former employer and the district formerly known as the overly-large school district, slow (very slow) efforts to implement a 1-1 computing program. When you have almost 190,000 students and a budget with too many antiquated priorities, I guess slow is the only way you can go.

My friend and former colleague Margaret is the tech professional development specialist for the one high school (out of 25) that will be part of the pilot 1-1 program next fall. And she is worried about1 the pushback she is getting from some on her staff concerning the coming changes.

Last week a teacher said to me “I’m not going to change something I’m doing just so kids can use technology.”

I think this represents our biggest hurdle and misconception about this transition. The idea that we are making changes to instruction to include technology rather than changing instruction to help students learn.

The big idea here is that this isn’t about the device. We keep saying that but it doesn’t seem to be sinking in.

Margaret is right in categorizing that attitude towards change as a hurdle, but I’m not so sure it’s a misconception on the part of this teacher. I’m betting this particular staff member has been around long enough to have seen many similar initiatives, technological and others, come and go over the years. He/she knows that the only thing new in the classroom next year will likely be more devices.

The curriculum won’t change. The overemphasis on testing, coming from the state plus AP and IB, will be the same. Any training she gets will be far more focused on operating the technology than on the pedagogy necessary to make best use of the devices. School administrators will also receive incomplete training on what a 1-1 should look like, and will be more concerned with equipment theft and student “hackers”.2

I think I’ve heard the concept of “it’s not about the device” repeated hundreds of times in Fairfax, by everyone from the superintendent on down. But actions rarely followed the talk.

The process of implementing 1-1 in Fairfax is largely being lead by the IT department (unless something drastic has changed in the past ten months), with most of the time in planning sessions I attended before my exit last year was spent on topics such as what device, how it would be deployed and managed, and what to do if the kids did something wrong. Changes to instructional process came at the end of the agenda, if at all, and alterations to curriculum were rarely were discussed. Plus, one of my big gripes, very few teachers were involved in high level planning and kids were excluded altogether.

Anyway, it will be interesting to watch the rollout of the Fairfax 1-1 project. And I hope Margaret and everyone involved are able to affect some genuine change for their teachers and students using the flood of new equipment that’s coming next fall.

Although I have little evidence to believe that major changes to the way that students learn are coming as a result, I really would love to be proved wrong. Really!

The Middle Ground of 1-1

Writing in the Washington Post, a teacher relates the story about what happened when she gave each of her third graders an iPad. And then she wished she could take the back.

Her first disappointment came when her “lively little kids stopped talking and adopted the bent-neck, plugged-in posture of tap, tap, swipe”. Although I’m not sure why that was unexpected. It sounds like the behavior of 8 year olds with a new toy.

Some of the problems she experienced with her class were technological – slow bandwidth, password issues – and should have been anticipated and planned for. But other issues that caused this teacher to regret this 1-1 program are clearly the fault of whoever in her school or district is leading it.

She notes that the staff did do some planning in advance of the distribution.

My colleagues and I had tried to anticipate all sorts of issues before the new tablet initiative rolled into our third-grade classrooms last year. What happens if the children lose them? Break them? Forget their passwords? How will we clean the screens? Charge them all at once? Which lessons lend themselves well to iPads, and which ones don’t? We had meetings, made plans and did our best to embrace the new – both because we had a sense of the potential and because asking questions about the efficacy of one-to-one classrooms (with a computing device for each child), or wondering aloud whether more tech for little kids was supported by research, was not only unwelcome, it was illogical.

Notice that most of those questions involve logistics, not instruction. The fact that they were asking questions about whether the tech would be appropriate for students at that age is wonderful, but they should have had that discussion long before anything was purchased.

Fairfax County, aka the overly-large school district and my former employer, is now working on a 1-1 program for the whole system and, when I left less than four months ago, the planning was almost entirely centered around those logistical issues. There was very little about the important parts: changing curriculum and pedagogy to align with the fact every student has a powerful, connected computing device. I hope that’s changed but I rather doubt it.

The teacher relating her story in the Post spends the last half of the article reflecting on the “screen time” issue, returning to studies from OECD (tech doesn’t improve student learning) and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (concerns about excessive time on devices affecting student development).

At the end, she does appear to begin appreciating the fact that putting technology in the hands of students is not an all or nothing deal.

But jumping from the “sage on the stage” teaching model to a screen for each kid skips over critical territory in between, where children learn from, and build their social skills with, one another. Classrooms run by worksheets won’t be magically transformed with tablets, and classrooms where teachers skillfully engage their students don’t need screens – and the extra baggage they introduce – to get great results.

However, there is a middle ground between those two classroom scenarios. Between screens as simply a replacement for worksheets and no technology “baggage”. It takes a great deal of planning by everyone in the school, a willingness on the part of teachers to learn and to alter their instructional practice, and input from the students themselves, something that’s usually missing from 1-1 plans.

This particular teacher wasn’t prepared for 1-1, and I rather doubt that most of my formerly colleagues in Fairfax will be either when the screens arrive in the their classrooms.

Be Careful What You Wish For

At a meeting earlier this week, we had a short but lively discussion about the role of personal network devices in our schools, spark by a report on how our experiment into the instructional uses of the iPod Touch from last spring would continue this year.

But I also wanted to expand the vision of the project and try to get our leadership thinking about changes to our normal processes that would make it possible for students to use their own devices in school.

Currently, as you might expect, anything that connects kids outside the physical classroom (cell phones, laptops, wireless handhelds) is pretty much banned from our overly-large school district.

So, what about our goal to provide “1-1 computing” (and that term is fast becoming obsolete), or at least for students to have regular access to the technology?

I’m convinced it’s never going to happen unless we follow the model of colleges and allow kids to bring their own. (Or even require laptops and offer assistance to those families who can’t afford them?)

Anytime the topic of kids bringing Touches/cell phones/laptops to school comes up in our system there’s lots of talk around the table about security and support and network capacity, etc. And certainly those are important topics to address.

[Side note: can you imagine how everyone is going to freak if (when) kids start bringing netbooks with cell cards buried in them, allowing them to connect to the web without going through the filters?]

However, technical issues are the smallest part of making this plan work. The larger impediment are the teachers and administrators in the schools, not to mention the curriculum folks in central office.

Very few of them are prepared for what happens when every student in class has instant access to a huge variety of communications tools, both incoming and outgoing (who’s streaming the class today?).

How is that power controlled? Or more to the point, how should the teaching and learning process change when students more equally share control of the technology, instead of access being exclusively dictated by the teacher?

Those of us who are advocates for the potentially transformative effect of instructional technology are often caught up in the day-to-day, never-ending struggle to provide enough equipment, software, training and support to make large scale changes possible.

But sometimes we forget the old adage of “be careful what you wish for”.

Because if we ever did get to the point where every student is carrying around their own networked computing device, the traditional education model we’ve lived with for a century or more would probably fall apart very quickly.

And that is NOT a bad thing.

The image is one imagining of what Apple’s mythical tablet might look like. Just one more personal networked device that could show up in schools.