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Tag: tablet (Page 1 of 2)

Lacking Vision in LA

Last spring the Los Angeles County schools voted to buy an iPad for every child in their system. This fall they started handing them to students, confident that they were locked down and could only be used for the designated instructional purposes.

Sure.

It took exactly one week for nearly 300 students at Roosevelt High School to hack through security so they could surf the Web on their new school-issued iPads, raising new concerns about a plan to distribute the devices to all students in the district.

I don’t know the details beyond what I’ve read on the LA Times site, but there are a couple aspects about this story that go beyond my original rant on this project.

First, it hardly rises to the level of “hacking” when all that was required was deleting the personal profile on the device. And I doubt 300 students discovered the process. More likely it was one or two who then spread the news.

But even worse than a few kids challenging a rather stupid attempt at “security” is the district leadership’s view of how they should be using a connected, powerful computing device. As little more than a very expensive means of delivering standard curriculum materials, stuff that’s probably little changed from the stuff currently on paper.

And that vision (or lack thereof) is driven home by their short term solution to the problem.

By Tuesday afternoon, L.A. Unified officials were weighing potential solutions. One would limit the tablets, when taken home, to curricular materials from the Pearson corporation, which are already installed. All other applications and Internet access would be turned off, according to a district “action plan.”

Or to put it another way,

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In the end, LA could have paid Amplify to provide heavily locked-down tablets with canned curriculum materials and few worries about empowering children. And done it for far cheaper.

The Amplification of Learning

Sunday’s New York Times magazine (the education issue) features a long article about tablets in schools, beginning in a North Carolina district that is in the process of deploying their devices to every student and teacher in their 24 middle schools. 

Actually, that’s not accurate. This story really is not about “tablets” or how new technologies impact learning, or even about education. It’s a long, high profile ad for Amplify, a division of Rupert Murdock’s global media conglomerate News Corp, and their all-in-one “solution” for fixing American education.

The entire article has so many flaws, misconceptions and errors that it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s start with the philosophy of the company as laid out by the CEO Joel Kline, former chancellor of the New York City schools, who, of course, believes that “K-12 isn’t working”. Kline also says that education is “ripe for disruption”, a phrase used by many other business people looking for a way to profit from public schools.

However, the model his company is pushing is anything but disruptive. Beyond tablets, Amplify is selling a fixed curriculum (aligned to Common Core, of course), delivered at a predetermined pace, adjusted slightly based on how well students do on their highly structured feedback system, also being sold.

Rather than stimulating major changes, Amplify’s approach to learning sets in concrete the traditional school model of the past hundred years. Except that now their tablet is the all-knowing dispenser of information. The teacher in this model becomes a combination data manager and tutor.

The writer does pose one non-softball question to Kline about “what evidence supports spending tax dollars on educational technology”, one that we should be asking more often. Unfortunately, his unchallenged response doesn’t even rise to the level of lame.

… he boiled it down to three things. First and most important was the power of “customizing.” Plenty of research does indeed show that an individual student will learn more if you can tailor the curriculum to match her learning style, pace and interests; the tablet, he said, will help teachers do that. Second, educators have not taken full advantage of students’ enthusiasm for the gadgetry that constitutes “an important part of their experience.” Lastly, teachers feel overwhelmed; they “need tools,” Klein said, to meet ever-increasing demands to show that their students are making progress.

Yes, we could improve learning by better incorporating student interests and their styles but that’s not what the Amplify system is doing. And teachers are overwhelmed by lack of “tools” but instead by the ever-increasing demand to generate “data”, not to mention the constant chant by Kline and his reformer pals about how teachers are the root of all that’s wrong with schools. The part about “enthusiasm for gadgetry” is too stupid to waste time responding.

That part about tailoring K12 education to the student brings up another critical piece missing in the development of this tablet and the material being sold for it: the students themselves. Certainly Amplify is doing focus group testing (complete with the requisite junk food) on how their software works, but that’s not the same as actually working with kids to incorporate topics they want to explore and how they best learn. Of course, our standard school curriculum and process is almost entirely adult driven anyway, so this is another example of how Kline’s “disruption” really isn’t.

Scattered throughout the Times piece, the writer brings up her very valid concerns, and those of others, about students spending too much time in front of screens and not enough interacting with others or the world at large. What she doesn’t address is the quality and purpose of that time.

Amplify’s tablets and software are heavily focused on the one-way transmission of information, with student input coming at specified points in the process. That’s far different from students using devices as a tool for a project or activity. Creating a video, recording audio of their thoughts, assembling a storybook, all very different from rote responses to a pre-programmed lesson delivered on a tablet.

Finally, after thousands of words, and far more crap than anyone should have to suffer through, the writer finally arrives at an important point she should have made far earlier in the story: teaching is all about people and relationships.

Still, if everyone agrees that good teachers make all the difference, wouldn’t it make more sense to devote our resources to strengthening the teaching profession with better recruitment, training, support and pay? It seems misguided to try to improve the process of learning by putting an expensive tool in the hands of teachers we otherwise treat like the poor relations of the high-tech whiz kids who design the tool.

Are our overwhelmed, besieged, haphazardly recruited, variably trained, underpaid, not-so-elite teachers, in fact, the potential weak link in Amplify’s bid to disrupt American schooling? Klein said that we have 3.5 million elementary- and middle-school teachers. “We have to put the work of the most brilliant people in their hands,” he said. “If we don’t empower them, it won’t work.” Behind the talking points and buzz words, what I heard him saying was Yes.

Bottom line, if we’re not going to invest in people – teachers, kids and families – no amount of technology is going to disrupt, or improve, American education.

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.

Plenty of Choices. Just Not Good Ones.

With the next version of the iPad being announced later today, I was thinking about the way some in leadership positions here in the overly-large school district talk about using “tablets”, using the generic term when it’s pretty clear that most others are hearing iPads.

They try very hard not to lean toward a specific product since the system has also blessed the purchase of the Xoom device by Motorola and running Android. In effect, they want schools and offices to think of the two operating systems as equal and to make a choice based on needs. Or something like that.

Early in the school year when we started working with tablets in the system, I tried to be balanced when discussing which device someone should consider, with a collection of plusses and minuses for each. Now, after spending some time with the Xoom and watching others struggling with it, I’ve pretty much given up on being “fair”.

The big problem is that iOS and Android are not equal, not even close, especially when implemented on tablets.

I could go into my long list of reasons why, but instead read what Fraser Speirs, who has a whole lot more experience using mobile devices in a classroom, has to say on the matter.

His conclusion is that Android represents solid engineering on the part of Google. However, the way manufacturers deploy it – with multiple versions, confusing upgrade policies, inconsistent user interfaces and hardware integration – is a “deal breaker”.

Read the whole post which is a great analysis of Android’s problems. Speirs is focusing on a school environment but many of the points he makes will be relevant to anyone considering purchasing any mobile device.

Other than the rumors being passed around, I have no idea what Apple will show in their presentation. But I do know that whatever the products, the hardware and software involved will be tightly integrated, producing a user experience that’s just not available on any Android device.

You may not like Apple or iPads or stuff with i names. But the company’s recent successes (computers sales are also growing fast) shows that there are plenty of us who like our technology to just work smoothly without a lot of fuss.

And, of course, when it comes to tablets you do have plenty of choices. Just not good ones.

Act 2

Early in most action movies, there’s that scene where the hero discovers the villain and they tangle for the first time. Despite a valiant effort, at some point the villain is able to grab the critical plot point (world-threatening weapon, secret formula, important person), jump into a car/plane/spaceship and take off with the hero vainly in pursuit. He obviously believes he can catch the bad guy at that point but we know he’s got more work to do since this is only the first act of the film and we haven’t made a dent in our popcorn bucket.*

I’ve had a similar feeling about the use of instructional technology here in our overly-large school district. Except that it’s more like Groundhog Day where we are constantly stuck in act 1 of our determined effort to integrate the use of computers and networks into the practice of classroom teachers. Year after year fighting the same battles of not enough access for kids and too many administrators and teachers saying it’s important while still treating technology use as an optional nice-to-have extra.

However, as we head into the new school year, I have a real feeling of optimism with the idea in my warped little brain that we might be on the verge of making some significant progress, that we finally could move into act 2 (where the good guys start making some real progress in their quest to save the world), after a decade of running in slow motion repeats.

So, what’s new?

For one thing, this fall we will be seriously implementing a program to allow students to bring their own computing devices (BYOD) to school and use them in class. A few schools have been experimenting with this idea for a few years but now the concept has the blessing of the school board and the announced support of the top administrators, potentially making it harder for principals and teachers, especially in high schools, to avoid using technology for more than just standardized testing.

We will be pairing that with a Google Apps for Education site that makes accounts available to all staff and students in our middle and high schools, and all staff in elementary (ES students may be added during second semester). Which finally offers every teacher some good, consistent tools for collaboration and student communication, ones that are far better than the crappy Blackboard installation we are still stuck with.

Then there are a bunch of smaller items: we also have an option for schools to buy small quantities of tablets (iPad and Xoom), which may not seem like such a big deal but it represents a major crack in the rigid standardization efforts of our IT department (not to mention their anti-Apple attitude). Sometime in the fall we should have a robust web conferencing system available for schools to use, instead of playing around with a variety of free tools. Plus we’ll be making some major steps to implement online textbooks in middle and high schools, although the publishers still require us to buy the paper versions as well.

But probably the largest alteration to our traditional way of doing business around here is the fact that these policies are all being implemented at the same time and in all 200 schools (yes, we are that overly-large). As opposed to our usual system of small, cautious, controlled pilots that take many years to spread, and policies that discourage schools and teachers from experimenting with anything outside what’s been “approved”.

Although the plan is for these changes to happen with the start of the new school year, there’s always the possibility that someone at the top could change their mind. It’s clear from looking in the eyes of some of the people at our meetings that they are worried about the possibilities and already many of our leadership are reconsidering including smart phones in the BYOD program.

And, of course, most of our teachers don’t yet have any real understanding of what’s going to happen (some may have seen one of our assistant superintendent talking about this stuff on the news). A relatively small percentage of them will welcome the opportunities as well as the challenges, but the vast majority will need time to adjust, some far more than others.

But I’m still optimistic and very excited at the possibility of all these changes, and with the feeling of finally moving forward. However, I’m certainly not naive enough to believe that all of this will happen smoothly or that every classroom will be instantly transformed. It will take a lot of work and more than just one school year to help our staff adjust. More importantly, it will require a willingness on the part of all adults in the system to give up some control, especially to the students, and that’s likely to be the most disruptive part of this entire process (and a topic for another rant).

Anyway, I’m sure there will be many more twists to everything being planned around here for the coming school year but for now I’m just glad we may finally be able to see what happens in act 2 of this particular action picture.


*I know this analogy may fall apart if you start asking who or what is the villain in this piece so please just don’t think about it and play along. It’s all in my warped little head anyway. :-)

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