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.

Homogenizing Tablets

Here in the overly large school district we are buying lots of iPads.

Nothing particularly unusual about that. While the brand of the tablet may vary1, many educational institutions are trying to figure out if this new format could be a good classroom tool.

And I think most of our schools don’t understand what they have purchased.

Most iPad owners probably realized very quickly that it’s not a computer. There really isn’t a good, short generic label for it, but everything in this relatively new category of mobile communications devices2 was designed to be for individual use and to be easily customizable.

Schools on the other hand want to use these devices in the same way they’ve used “standard” computers for the past twenty years: very clone-able and offering the exact same experience for every person who sits down at it.

In some ways this dichotomy mirrors the disconnect between our traditional factory model of education and the growing personalization of learning out there in the real world. We continue to try and maintain an homogenized approach to schooling while the opportunities for individual and high social learning is exploding.

Ok, maybe stretching things a bit, but the point is that these can and should be highly individualized learning devices if we were thinking in those terms for school as a whole.

In the meantime, there are more than a few companies trying to build a “school tablet”, one that does allow for the tight controls our IT department lusts after (and those in other districts, I’m guessing). The latest example is the Amplify Tablet, announced this week at the South by Southwest Education conference (aka sxswedu).

According to the company, Amplify is designed to give “teachers the ability to both monitor and control what students do with the device”.

Teachers can conduct lessons with an entire class or small group and can instantly see what websites or lesson areas students are visiting. A teacher dashboard allows them to take instant polls, ask kids to “raise their hands” virtually and, if things get out of hand, redirect the entire class with an “Eyes on Teacher” button that instantly pushes the message out to every screen.

In other words, Amplify is really no different from what we have now, both in terms of computing devices and how we use them. The purpose of this table is to foster the same nice, neat, uniform, teacher-directed instruction that has been the centerpiece of schooling for more than a century. If it’s not there already, I fully expect Amplify to come with an app for taking standardized tests since the whole package is designed to address the holy grail of American education: higher scores.

One of the reasons I’m such a big advocate for bring-your-own-devices programs is that I hope it will force a change in the way we use technology in schools by making it more individual and personal. Unfortunately, it will take more than allowing kids to use cell phones and tablets inside the building to force the kind of major changes in the traditional school structure we need.

By the way, all the press on the Amplify announcement calls this a “start up” company but it’s hardly in the same class with other small tech groups scrambling to make a name for themselves. Amplify Education Inc. was formed following the purchase of education start-up Wireless Generation by News Corp., and its CEO is former New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

Klein is very wedded to a traditional, test-driven vision of education while News Corp is very driven by making money any way it can. Not a good combination.

1 Not a fan of Apple? From this point on, feel free to substitute your favorite tablet brand for iPad. My point won’t change.

2 MCD? Nope, that doesn’t work.

Words Are Far More Important Than Word

BYOD rolls on here in the overly-large school district. Now in our second year, the progress is not as fast as the very-impatient me would like but at least the direction is forward, so I remain optimistic.

While our middle schools and even some elementary schools are doing some great work with integrating student devices, many of the high schools are doing a lot of foot dragging. A recent short discussion with an assistant principal revealed one reason why.

When I asked about BYOD at his school he told me they really hadn’t done much about it. Following up on the why, he gave me some of the usual discipline, “we have no control over what the kids might do” excuses, and I pushed back on all of them.

Then he told me that, aside from all that, students probably wouldn’t come with the right software on their devices making them useless for instruction.

“Right” software?

Yeah, like Word and PowerPoint. “They really can’t get anything done in their classes without those programs.”

I wish I understood the reverence felt towards the Microsoft Office package. Most people know don’t use more than 20% of the capabilities of Word, maybe a little more in PowerPoint, less in Excel, and I can’t name anyone who willingly opens Access.

Anyway, I didn’t have time to explain the error of his approach, one that I expect is pretty common.

However, what this AP and other educators need to realize is that it’s far more important to define what it is we want students to be able to do with their devices rather than to think in terms of brand names.

When it comes to BYOD, kids should be able to use their devices for writing, accessing and reading information, taking and editing images, and moving their work somewhere. The exact software that gets the job done is irrelevant.

I know many teachers are nervous about this lack of consistency and loss of control in their classrooms. Get over it.

Let your students be responsible for the technology and concentrate instead on what you want them to learn from and do with those devices. As should always be the case, the learning is far more important than the device.

What I Learned This Year: Section 2

Continuing with my final exams begun in the previous post

The year now winding up here in our overly-large school district has been jammed full of new and change, at least when it comes to technology available to teachers. Possibly too much new and change. It’s as if we saved up all the stuff we should have been doing over the past four or five years and unleashed it all at one time.

The project that I had the highest hopes for was the somewhat radical (for our very traditional administration) change in policy that allows and even encourages students to bring their own devices to school (BYOD)* and use them openly. As opposed to what kids have been doing all along but having to keep things hidden.

Although a few of our schools have embraced the concept and are very positive about making the concept work, most seem to be moving into it much more tentatively. Some made no progress at all, and too many of the people I talk to seem very much afraid of both the kids and the technology.

However, it’s a start. Maybe not as much of an impact as I was hoping for but still a start.

Maybe, after this year of discussing the idea and gaining a little experience, more teachers and administrators will be more willing to consider how they can make instructional use all those smartphones, tablets and laptops that don’t look like the computer equipment in the lab down the hall. And are not under their total control.

I still believe that this approach to technology use in schools is inevitable and eventually we’ll all wonder why anyone made such a big fuss over it. But I learned this school year that around here, significant progress is going to a little longer than I would like.

I’m just not sure I’m learning to be any more patient about it.

* Some of our schools elected to use the phrase “personally owned devices” (PODs) instead due to the negative connotation of the traditional BYO meaning.

Getting Past The Fear

On my short rant last Friday about my frustration with the lack of forward momentum in our first year BYOD program, Allan1 left a long comment telling me just how wrong I am.

Sorry, I can’t accept any of it.

It’s always hazardous to summarize someone else but in essence Allan’s primary argument seems to be that we shouldn’t allow students to bring their own devices because no school has enough resources to control what students will do with them.

VJaying with videos of students acting inappropriately in the school halls or community set to music and posted on Youtube, vulgar emails sent to administrators or teachers, multiplayer video games being played on school servers, videotaping student fights for posting on Youtube, students inappropriately accessing teacher online classroom portals, online bullying, sexting, etc.

Of course, none of that is happening now in schools where electronic devices are banned, right?

We are forever blah, blahing about the need to differentiate instruction for students2, while at the same time we insist on treating every kid exactly the same way outside of class. How many kids are we talking about in that paragraph?

I can’t speak for all high schools, but in our district, the numbers of students who willfully misuse the technology in the way Allen describes is very small. I’d bet that most teachers and administrators could identify those most likely to screw up like that by the second week of school. So, why do we treat the other 98% as if they will behave the same way?

Which brings up the matter of where students learn the ethics of working online. Again limiting things to our system, schools certainly don’t teach it. They learn from each other. Maybe if we did more than read them a long list of rules (our’s runs some 60 pages) and helped them understand the issues early in life, we would have even fewer who violate those rules. Better yet, involve the kids in crafting the rules in the first place.

At the very end, Allan actually brings up two issues that are far more important in this discussion than any fear of student misconduct.

What happened to all of the research that demonstrated 2 students working on a computer enabled collaboration which resulted in more retention than direct instruction?

Good question and one that goes directly to the process of genuinely integrating technology into instruction. It’s going to require a lot of work helping teachers understand how to use the devices students are bringing. When is it best to allow individual use and when will kids benefit from working together?

So, are we really interested in making a computer available to every student?

If school systems are so eager for 1 to 1 ratio, break out the checkbook and issue every student a laptop or pad.

Completely agree. We should issue a computing device to every student when they enter middle school (maybe earlier) and then budget to replace it every three years. Plus the infrastructure necessary to support it all.

Ain’t gonna happen, at least not in a system as big as ours with close to 180,000 students. And not with the commitment to traditional textbook driven instruction we have. An issue for another rant.

Anyway, I’ve certainly heard all the fears behind allowing students to use these powerful communications tools in schools. However, the potential of BYOD programs far outweigh all of those mostly unfounded fears.

1 Since the IP address of the comment comes from within our district’s network and the name is not in our email directory, I suspect the name is a pseudonym. No matter.

2 Despite the mounting evidence that the whole theory of learning styles is not credible. A topic for another rant.