Digital Conversion

In the last few years, many districts in this area have been promoting a “digital transformation” in their schools, including Fairfax, the system that employed me for many years. It’s a nice phrase and one that is often linked to 1-1 programs. But what does the phrase really mean? What exactly is going to be transformed?

Dig into the plans – posted on websites, presented at conferences, explained in conversations – and you hear a lot of elements not related to learning. The discussion is about technology and support issues: What device should we buy? Do we have enough bandwidth? We need more power outlets. How do we pay for all this? What happens if a student does something wrong with the machine we’re handing them?

Almost completely missing is an explanation of the major changes that will come in curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, or pretty much anything else instructional, as a result of buying all the equipment, software, and infrastructure.

Ok, I know transformations like this take time, especially in a tradition-bound institution like American education. And I’m also sure this kind of external communication doesn’t cover all the pieces districts are considering in their planning.

So, at the risk of covering issues already being addressed, I have a few questions for districts and schools undergoing a digital transformation.

How are you planning to change the curriculum teachers and students will be working with?

Shouldn’t the concept of learning change when information is no longer scarce? When the process of “teaching” is no longer one way from teacher to student? Asking students to recreate the same research papers their parents wrote makes no sense. Plodding through sheets of problems that their phones could solve in seconds, and which add nothing to their understanding of mathematics, wastes everyone’s time.

Are you providing enough support and time for teachers to learn the pedagogy to accompany all the digital?

Managing computers in the classroom is important. Knowing how to work Google Classroom or Office 365 is certainly part of the mix. But using Google is not necessarily transformative. Shifting the standard assignments from paper to digital is not at all transformative. And it’s going to take a lot of time for teachers (measured in years, not semesters) to make the major alterations to their practice that takes complete advantage of the new opportunities available in their classroom.

How will evaluation change to match the transformed expectations for learning?

Certainly there is basic knowledge and fundamental skills that we should expect any educated person in our society to know. Beyond that, digital tools allow for exploring the personal interests and talents that all students bring to school. So how do we assess their learning of both the essential materials and their individual goals? It’s not through standardized tests and we need to figure it out if this transformation is ever going to happen.

And finally, where are the students in your transformational planning?

Educators talk all the time about how the kids are the most important part of school. However, we rarely include them in any of these discussions. Not with surveys. Not by asking their opinion about school rules. Not with a few focus groups once most of the plans are in place. Students need to be at the table when we are finding the answers to all of the questions above. It’s their education. They will benefit most from their work in school (or possibly benefit very little). They need to have an equal voice.

This is just a start. There are many, many other questions that need to be asked, all part of the process of creating real change.

Because if you are using technology to digitize the same old learning process, what you get is a digital conversion, not a transformation.

A Dismal Future for EdTech

An article titled “12 Companies Transforming Education To Watch Next Year” might be an interesting read if not for the fact it appears in Forbes Magazine, which calls itself “The Capitalist Tool”. And that the list is a very odd mix, with very little truly “transformative”.

One example, ForClass is described as “platform and distribution network” that “increases [student] participation and accountability in the classroom while reducing prep time for professors”. Sounds like any number of learning management systems already in place, all of which do little more than support traditional teaching. Same for Flashnotes which is creating a “marketplace” for college students to sell their lecture notes.

On the other side of the classroom, Panorama Education, “run by two data heads from Yale”, wants to improve teacher evaluations by creating “scientifically valid” surveys that are “cheap, modern and effective”. But at least they have “impressive” backers like noted educators Mark Zuckerburg and Ashton Kutcher, so they must be on to something.

DonorsChooseAndela (which helps youth in Africa learn programming skills), Edmodo, Schoology, all doing good work in their respective spaces but are not shaking up the education process. 

And then there’s the media and Bill Gates’ favorite educational revolutionary, Khan Academy, which basically moves the classic fact-based lecture onto the web.

Transform education? Hardly.

I doubt any of the companies on this list will even produce the kind of extreme profits venture capitalists, or the capitalist tools who read Forbes, are looking for.

Certainly it’s hard to imagine they represent the kind of edtech that will be “taking by storm schools, students and the process of learning across the globe”.