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.

Blogging Still Matters

Returning to the idea of a domain of one’s own, I ran across a post from long time blogger Andy Baio who mourns the “decline of independent blogging”, but still believes “they’re still worth fighting for”.

Ultimately, it comes down to two things: ownership and control.

Here, I control my words. Nobody can shut this site down, run annoying ads on it, or sell it to a phone company. Nobody can tell me what I can or can’t say, and I have complete control over the way it’s displayed. Nobody except me can change the URL structure, breaking 14 years of links to content on the web.

Ok, so none of us own a domain – we only rent it. And few people own the web server that distributes their work.

But by blogging at our own domain – outside of corporate platforms like Facebook, Tumblr (Verizon, by way of Yahoo), and Blogger (Google) – we still own and control our ideas and how they are first presented to the world.

Echoing Andy’s desire to see more independent bloggers, I firmly believe more educators should be posting out there on the open web. On their own domains. Telling the world what’s going on in their classrooms, schools, and districts (charter companies?). Discussing their ideas about learning. Reflecting on problems standing in their way. Contributing their unique voices to the mix on the web.

However, blogging is not enough. We also need to help each other build an audience and build communities around those educators who are willing to share in the open. And, on the other end, to teach our colleagues, parents, and even students why reading blogs is important, where to find the good ones, and how to easily build them into their routines (RSS still lives!).

How does that happen? I don’t quite know. Others have tried and largely failed (top 100 lists and trivial awards do not a community make). But I think it’s worth more effort, and I’m open to suggestions.

Right now, all of this is just an idea buzzing around my warped little mind. We’ll see if anything develops from it.

Learning to Code Should Not Be About Getting a Job

Since our new superintendent arrived last July, she’s been making some high-profile attempts to attract input from the larger community.* One example of that effort is a forum on a service called UserVoice which allows anyone who registers to post suggestions and then comment and vote on the ideas of others.

As of the date of this entry, the top vote getter suggests “Our students should learn to code”, with 989 votes and 24 comments. Slightly ahead of complaints about class size, teacher pay, and the ever-popular issue of later start times for high schools.

Unfortunately, the writer of the coding idea tied it to offering formal computer science classes and helping students better qualify for jobs in that field.

There are, of course, far better reasons that kids need to learn the basics of programming starting in elementary grades. Here’s a comment about the context of learning to code I added to the original suggestion.

Certainly every student should learn the concepts of programming but it has nothing to do with getting a computer science-related job. Everyone should have a good understanding of how the systems that control the world work. Too many people put their trust in technology without having a clue about what goes on behind the screen.

Learning about those processes should be a fundamental part of the school curriculum starting in the lower elementary grades. Some kids will be interested and want to continue in the field. For everyone else, they acquire invaluable knowledge for whatever vocation they follow as well as being a more informed member of society in general.

Do you suppose our superintendent will pay any attention to the idea of students learning to code (other than expanding high school programming classes)? The cynic in me doubts she will. Those concepts are not on the SOLs, and we all know that what gets tested is what gets taught.


* Her “listening tour” arrives in my neighborhood later this month. It may be worth a rant or two.