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.

Moving Forward by Delivering Devices

Continuing on the topic of 1:1 device programs, Wired has a very good review of the lessons learned (and not learned) in the high-profile mess the leadership of Los Angeles schools created for themselves two years ago.

Currently everyone involved is pointing fingers, with the LA superintendent blaming Apple, Pearson, and technology in general. While still buying an additional $40 million worth of iPads and Chromebooks to be used “exclusively for testing”.

Michael Horn, an author and education consultant, hopes the expensive experience of LA “will get people to pause and learn the bigger lesson”. And what is that bigger lesson?

“LA is emblematic of a problem we’re seeing across the country right now,” he says. “Districts are starting with the technology and not asking themselves: ‘What problem are we trying to solve, and what’s the instructional model we need to solve it?’ and then finding technology in service of that.”

I’ll be plastering that quote on the wall at the next 1:1 meeting I attend here in the overly-large school district.

“A lot of schools get into trouble when the conversation starts with the vendor,” Horn says. “Where I’ve seen these programs work is when the school starts off with its vision, and only once they’ve sketched out what the solution should look like do they go out to the hardware and software communities to mix and match to meet those needs.”

Horn goes on to note that ed tech vendors often “design their software in a vacuum” without understanding how their products might be used in a real classroom.

On the other side of the equation many schools and districts are also wearing a mighty set of blinders when it comes to the possibilities for using technology, even tools not specifically labeled “ed tech”, for student learning. That, of course, may require examining and possibly changing our traditional practices

However, after all their problems over the past two years, I’m not at all sure the leadership of LAUSD has learned much, based on this statement from a district spokesperson: “We’re still very much moving forward in technology and continuing to deliver devices to schools.”

Someone probably needs to remind them again that “moving forward” in education is least of all about “delivering devices”.

Educational Gimmicks

Remember when the superintendent for Los Angeles Unified School District had big plans to give an iPad to all 640,000 of their students?

Well, they have a new superintendent.

“I don’t believe we can afford a device for every student,” Cortines told the Los Angeles Times, “Education shouldn’t become the gimmick of the year.” Cortines added that LAUSD had never made a definitive plan for how teachers would have used the iPads during instruction, nor had it planned how it was going to pay for the tablets over time.

I’m not sure what he means by education “becoming” the gimmick of the year since, for as long as I can remember, we’ve had a new gimmick almost every year. Sometimes more than one.

And that gimmick was often some kind of technology, distributed with vague plans for instructional use, and no sustainable funding plan.

Solutions in Search of Problems

The soap opera that is the Los Angeles school district’s quest for technology continues.1

There really isn’t anything in that article of interest to someone not living in Southern California but some of the statements by the players in this drama are very revealing of how many of our leaders view the place of technology in schools and learning.

For example, the head of the district’s facilities division, responsible for purchasing equipment, noted that “We’re just looking for devices.” in discussing the suspension of the infamous iPad contract. Which highlights one huge error in our approach to instructional technology.

We go shopping for “devices” without knowing how they will be used. We buy “solutions” before clearly understanding the problems they’re supposed to solve.

Then there is this little portion of the purchase.

The district also wanted authorization to spend $16.5 million to buy computers for every middle and high school teacher as well as for office staff. The immediate purpose is to help teachers use a new online student data system that malfunctioned across L.A. Unified at the start of the school year. The computers can also be used for instruction. [emphasis mine]

Also not unique, using computers for instruction as an afterthought.

However, as with discussions of just about any aspect of American education these days, we eventually get around to the primary reason anyone wants to spend large amounts of money on digital devices of any kind: standardized testing.

New bidding has yet to begin, however, and the district said it needs $25 million more in computers right away to be ready for state tests. Those exams will expand to their full length this spring, requiring twice as long, about eight hours, to complete.

A longer test means more computers will be needed at campuses where students are sharing the devices, said Gerardo Loera, who heads of the office of curriculum, instruction and school support.

Especially at high schools, with students moving from period to period and having to fit in Advanced Placement exams and other tests, scheduling the state testing with limited computers is “like an engineering project to pull it all together,” he said.

But members of the oversight committee challenged a district option to limit testing to two hours a day, all in the morning. [emphasis mine]

Oh, and there’s also the matter of the “lack of an inventory of devices the district already owns”.

Of course, none of this happens here in our Lake Wobegonish, overly-large school district. We never throw lots of money at devices (tablets, interactive whiteboards, clicker systems, wireless “slates”, etc.) without having a solid plan for using them to improve instruction. None of our schools suck up every computer in the building (not to mention instructional time) for days and weeks of standardized testing throughout the year. And then ask for more.

That kind of stuff only happens in places where the local media actually bothers to investigate what schools are doing with public money.

The Magical Properties of EdTech

Much has been written over the past year about the ill-fated 1-1 program in the Los Angeles Unified School district, which has now been suspended, scaled back and/or modified, depending on whose story you read. It began in the summer of 2013 with the announcement of ambitious plans to give an iPad to each of their 650,000 students.

And the project began to fall apart almost immediately with questions about financial and political irregularities in the procurement process. Followed closely by breathless news reports of students “hacking” their devices to get around the security measures installed by district IT. That “hack” turned out to be nothing more than removing one file to bypass the filtering system, but it was enough to insert even more media outrage into the mess.

However, in all that reporting, many writers, especially in the “traditional” media, miss a big point. They concentrated on the political (which public official should we blame this week) or the financial (Apple is doomed).2 Missing is the fact that this was, more than anything else, a crappy instructional plan.

You could start with the fact that very few if any teachers were involved in creating the proposal. As with so many of these grand ideas for improving education, the plan was pushed down on schools by administration (starting with the superintendent who claimed the devices would be “transformational”) and school board members who apparently believe that adding tech will magically fix all the other issues schools face.

Officials and parents say they hope the iPads will boost achievement and help put low-income students on an even footing with wealthier ones.

Many of those administrators also seemed to be far more worried about having enough connected devices for collecting data (through standardized testing, of course) rather than for student learning. The superintendent even called data a “pillar of his administration”.

But the far larger problem in all this, the single factor that doomed this project from the first day, lies in how too many educators, politicians, and business people picture 1-1 computing in the learning process. A concept neatly summarized by this photo:

kids and ipads

Kids, sitting in front of devices, isolated from each other, performing traditional instructional tasks.2 Or, very likely today, working their way through canned “individualized” lessons. But it’s nothing new. We’ve done the same thing since the first desktop computers were formed into school labs and teachers trooped their classes down the hall to do Math Blaster or Reader Rabbit.

Although many of the articles I’ve read blame the choice of iPads for failure of this project, it is not the device that’s at fault. Had LA schools bought Chromebooks, or Android devices, or Surface tablets, or just plain generic laptops, the ultimate result would be the same.

A district spends lots of money on classroom technology while changing nothing about the curriculum, classroom practice, teacher training, or assessment. District administrators and politicians stand for photo ops followed by high minded statements about “21st century” something and creating “world-class learners”. After everyone leaves, a small number of teachers relish the opportunity and try to do great things with the devices, while most, having had minimal opportunity for professional learning, continue with the standard test prep process and only use the new technology enough to satisfy the expectations of whoever is writing their evaluation.

And a few years later the next set of politicians, administrators and/or school board members come up with yet another idea to “reform” education.

Now, I have a pretty lousy track record at forecasting, so I could be wrong. But in my time as an educator in an overly-large (but smaller than LA) school district, I’ve seen many, many attempts to activate the magical learning properties of technology.

No one yet has found the right spell. It doesn’t exist. Not even the next shiny device to be announced any minute now.