Digital Conversion

In the last few years, many districts in this area have been promoting a “digital transformation” in their schools, including Fairfax, the system that employed me for many years. It’s a nice phrase and one that is often linked to 1-1 programs. But what does the phrase really mean? What exactly is going to be transformed?

Dig into the plans – posted on websites, presented at conferences, explained in conversations – and you hear a lot of elements not related to learning. The discussion is about technology and support issues: What device should we buy? Do we have enough bandwidth? We need more power outlets. How do we pay for all this? What happens if a student does something wrong with the machine we’re handing them?

Almost completely missing is an explanation of the major changes that will come in curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, or pretty much anything else instructional, as a result of buying all the equipment, software, and infrastructure.

Ok, I know transformations like this take time, especially in a tradition-bound institution like American education. And I’m also sure this kind of external communication doesn’t cover all the pieces districts are considering in their planning.

So, at the risk of covering issues already being addressed, I have a few questions for districts and schools undergoing a digital transformation.

How are you planning to change the curriculum teachers and students will be working with?

Shouldn’t the concept of learning change when information is no longer scarce? When the process of “teaching” is no longer one way from teacher to student? Asking students to recreate the same research papers their parents wrote makes no sense. Plodding through sheets of problems that their phones could solve in seconds, and which add nothing to their understanding of mathematics, wastes everyone’s time.

Are you providing enough support and time for teachers to learn the pedagogy to accompany all the digital?

Managing computers in the classroom is important. Knowing how to work Google Classroom or Office 365 is certainly part of the mix. But using Google is not necessarily transformative. Shifting the standard assignments from paper to digital is not at all transformative. And it’s going to take a lot of time for teachers (measured in years, not semesters) to make the major alterations to their practice that takes complete advantage of the new opportunities available in their classroom.

How will evaluation change to match the transformed expectations for learning?

Certainly there is basic knowledge and fundamental skills that we should expect any educated person in our society to know. Beyond that, digital tools allow for exploring the personal interests and talents that all students bring to school. So how do we assess their learning of both the essential materials and their individual goals? It’s not through standardized tests and we need to figure it out if this transformation is ever going to happen.

And finally, where are the students in your transformational planning?

Educators talk all the time about how the kids are the most important part of school. However, we rarely include them in any of these discussions. Not with surveys. Not by asking their opinion about school rules. Not with a few focus groups once most of the plans are in place. Students need to be at the table when we are finding the answers to all of the questions above. It’s their education. They will benefit most from their work in school (or possibly benefit very little). They need to have an equal voice.

This is just a start. There are many, many other questions that need to be asked, all part of the process of creating real change.

Because if you are using technology to digitize the same old learning process, what you get is a digital conversion, not a transformation.

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 buy1, 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.

Not Ready to Change

And speaking of the blossoming 1:1 program here in our overly-large school district (as I was in my previous rant)…

About the same time as our sessions for teachers this month, we heard that the principal of one of the project schools decided to delay implementation until the beginning of the next academic year.

Why? She simply said “We are not ready.”

Which also wasn’t a surprise.

In most of our schools, there is no sense that something fundamental needs to change. It’s all about the tests and the feeling is that any problems we have with kids not passing them can be fixed with what we already have. The same curriculum, pedagogy, and processes.

With putting kids through more time practicing the tested subjects. By collecting more data (always more data). Through “remediation” programs, in which students largely do the same thing they didn’t respond to in their regular classes.

And using computers as data collection terminals, not for creation, collaboration, or communication.

“We are not ready” to change anything about our instructional practice so why bother with the distraction of giving kids computers.

We Don’t Have Time For Technology

Our superintendent and board here in the overly-large school district want us to have a 1:1 computing program. It’s right there in their newly-released strategic plan: “Achieve goal of one electronic device per student” by the end of the 2016-17 school year.

Rather ambitious considering our size and lack of money, but ya gotta dream big, right?

Anyway, a few of our high schools are already heading down that path thanks to a generous grant from the state (and due to them not meeting AYP targets). With it they can issue low-cost computing devices to all their students, with the choice of phasing it in by class or going all the way.

To get them started, some of their teachers spent part of their summer break discussing how their instruction might change when every student had a computer every day. Or at least that was the idea.

While talking with one of the participants during a break she told me, “This is all very good but I don’t have time to do technology with my kids.”

The remark didn’t surprise me.

Many of our teachers, and probably most of our administrators, still view the use of technology as a nice-to-have extra. Something that is grafted on to the classic curriculum and traditional pedagogy. Maybe even a reward for students when they’ve finished their “regular” work.

And even with a school board directive and lots of state money, I don’t expect that attitude will change very soon.