Getting Our Priorities Straight

EdSurge, an organization that tracks the edtech industry,1 is covering a conference called the ASU+GSV Summit. Here is the opening paragraph from their report of the first day.

Bankers, lawyers, researchers and policymakers. Administrators, entrepreneurs and the Golden State Warriors. The ASU+GSV Summit, now in its eighth year, has assembled yet another potent cocktail of education industry stakeholders from different walks of life. (We’re kidding about the Warriors, who just happened to be staying at the venue hotel prior to Game 4 of the NBA playoffs.)

Notice anything missing from that “potent cocktail of education industry stakeholders”? Like teachers, parents, and the most important stakeholders of all, students?

Just the fact that they use the phrase “education industry” pretty much tells you all you need to know about the priorities of EdSurge and this conference. But if that’s not enough, how about this little observation.

Yet among the more than 3,000 people who poured into Salt Lake City for the event, the bankers were visibly in full force.

In the hierarchy of edtech, bankers are far more important than teachers. And for the entrepreneurs excited about their invites to “meetings in private suites” with those bankers, profits are far more important than children.

Keeping IT Happy

In a story about Microsoft’s education event this week, Wired made one good point about instructional technology. That had absolutely nothing to do with instruction.

The article’s focus was on the new, simpler version of Windows, called 10 S, that the writer says is aimed at competing with Google’s Chrome OS.

Chromebooks have been so successful because they’re hard to hack and easy for IT people to deal with; Windows 10 S appears to at least try doing the same.

picture of a laptop with chain and padlockAnd that sentence offers one primary reason why technology in the classroom is so screwed up: many, if not most, schools and districts make purchasing decisions based on what will make IT happy.

IT wants devices that make their jobs easier, something that is easy to clone, lock down, and control. From a central, remote location, please. The needs and wants of teachers are secondary. And students? Well, we rarely ask them about anything to do with what goes into their education anyway, so their opinion doesn’t count.

Certainly there is a place in schools for Chromebooks and whatever Windows 10 S turns out to be.2 But I strongly disagree that this computing-lite approach is “great news for students”.

Windows 10 S and Chromebooks simply represent one more way to standardize and maintain control over the learning process, while appearing to be forward looking.

The Fallacy of School Choice

With the new administration pushing the privatization of public schools, headed by a Secretary of Education even less qualified than me, you hear from a lot of advocates for “school choice”.

They tell you that if all parents had the option to send their children to any school of their choice – charter, private, or public – all would be well with American education. Or at least scores on the NAEP and PISA tests would skyrocket, which is about the only way most school reformers understand learning and student “achievement”.

The Secretary and her friends in the charter school industry maintain that picking a school should be like any other purchase in the free market. After all you have lots of options when it comes to buying a car and many places to buy one. Why not offer at least a few choices when it comes to something even more important?

There are some major issues with a “free market” system for something that should be a public good, more than enough for several long posts. However, the specific concept of “choosing” as school for a child includes a big problem I haven’t seen discussed much.

Unlike finding a new minivan, the vast majority of parents don’t have enough information about the complexities of school to make a real, informed choice. And many, if not most, don’t have the resources, expertise, or time to become sufficiently informed. That’s not a criticism of most parents. Unless you’re as rich as DeVos, parents don’t have a lot of time to spend on research.

But schools, private or not, also don’t make it easy to comparison shop. Some work very hard to hide any meaningful data on their programs, outcomes, and finances. Public schools have been known to fudge the numbers. And the information provided by most private schools and charters often comes in the form of marketing brochures. Material that’s more about recruiting than transparency.

In addition to having enough information is providing it in a form that can actually be compared. When you research that new car, most of the basic metrics have common units and language that can be lined up in columns. You also have some relatively independent organizations that test drive vehicles and speak a common language about the vehicles.

No one “test drives” schools. There are few common metrics between all schools. Much of the common language – world-class, mindset, high tech, innovation, STEM – is at best vaguely defined. Test scores can’t be compared because not all schools use the same evaluations and students in charters are often not required to take them. Even graduation rates are not measured in the same way.

So, the goal is to allow every parent in the US to decide where their children will receive the basic education that will impact the rest of their lives. How do we provide them with the necessary, relevant, and comparable data to do that? Something more than websites and flyers with pictures of happy kids and competent-looking teachers, mixed with important sounding educational jargon.

That’s a serious question. One that I rarely hear the advocates of school choice address. Because without sufficient, understandable information, how does anyone make a critical decision about something as important as a child’s education?

Hey, here’s a radical idea! How about if we spend more time and resources on improving pubic schools for all children everywhere in this country? That too is a serious question.

Enlist Your Kids in the Cyber Army

If you don’t read the publication called The Hill,2 you probably missed a recent opinion piece pushing a new topic for our already overloaded K12 curriculum: hacking.

According to a professor from Carnagie Mellon University, there is a “critical national shortage of” computer security experts and the first thing we need to do to correct this is “promote hacking at the K-12 level”. “[W]e need a national push to build effective cybersecurity education programs.”

No. Just no!

He’s very right that privacy education is essential for kids. Most adults as well. I agree completely with his positive definition of the term “hacking” and that “we need to recognize that hackers are valuable”.

However, we do not need yet another program designed to solve perceived corporate personnel shortages. Too many schools have already bought into the STEM crisis myth.

Or one to feed students to build his college program, which seems to be an underlying goal of his proposal.

And I’m extremely skeptical of his conclusion that “we need to embrace hacking as an essential skill for kids to learn in order to keep this country safe in the future”.

Instead, how about going back to the original concept of K12 education? The one where students received a broad liberal education and had the opportunity to explore a variety of subjects, especially leading up to high school where they would have the option to take some vocation-specific electives.

Maybe “hacking” should be a part of that experience. Building a child cyber army to fight off the bad guys should not.

What is Instructional Technology?

The following is a slightly modified post I wrote for the Virginia Society for Technology in Education (VSTE), our state affiliate of ISTE (full disclosure, I am a member of the VSTE Board of Directors). If you arrived here from that link, welcome. Please feel free to comment and let me know just how far off base I am with this rant. :)


A primary mission of VSTE is, of course, to help empower educators to make great use of technology for teaching and learning. Many of our members even have “instructional technology”, or some variation on the phrase, in their job title.

But what exactly is “instructional” technology? As opposed another variety of tech, like the 1977 Ford Pinto.

Ask around and you’ll probably get many different answers to that question, but, since this is my post, here is my twitter-length definition:

That would exclude the student information system many teachers use every day. Certainly the online grade book, attendance system, and other tools in most SIS packages is an essential part of classroom management. But it’s not used by students in any part of their learning.

We also drop the learning management system (LMS) many districts provide for their teachers. Think Blackboard, Edmodo, or Google Classroom. Also not “instructional” technology.

I suppose you could make the case that students might use parts of some LMS directly for their learning (a blogging tool, for example). But that’s not how they are commonly used. Most LMS function as organizational and distribution systems for content pushed to students, again to improve classroom management.

Also not “instructional”: response tools (Kahoot, Socrative), interactive whiteboards, video tutorials (Khan Academy), and a long, long list of curriculum games. Although I’ve seen a few (very few) special cases, student interaction with these resources is almost always as consumers, responding to material provided by publishers and teachers, not using them as creators.

And for me, that is the fundamental component for any technology to be considered instructional: control. When I say “directly by students”, I expect them to have some meaningful control as to how the technology – device, software, website, whatever – is used in the learning process.

So, what would I consider some examples of “instructional” technology?

That word processing program most students use would count, but only if they have some decision about what they will write. It would be even better if their writing was connected to the web, allowing them to present their ideas to a larger, more meaningful audience. One without a red pen.

We could include one of those slide show presentation programs, but only if the student has some control over the content. And again, let’s extend that control and let them determine the tools that will allow them to best explain their ideas to an audience beyond the walls of their classroom.

Then there are the devices that many students bring to school everyday, the ones that too many of their teachers still consider as the antithesis of “instructional”. Beyond providing access to vast amounts of information, those so-called phones are also powerful creative tools that can be used to record, edit, and distribute still images, audio, and video. Tools students can use in many, many ways to communicate their thoughts, ideas, and learning.

Of course, all of the above is only my opinion. But what do you think? How would you define “instructional technology” (or it’s shorter, equally vague sibling “edtech”)? Tweet your ideas to @timstahmer and @vste and let’s have that conversation. Or post a longer comment to this post on my blog.

Because in the end, the terminology we use when discussing these issues – with our colleagues, the community, legislators – does matter. We must be very clear when advocating for the use of technology in our schools and why it makes a difference for students.