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The Students Speak About EdTech

Last week, the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council made their annual report¹ to the school board here in the overly-large school district, this time dealing with their recommendations on the use of technology in schools.

In many ways it was a disappointing presentation.  Disappointing but not especially surprising.

Considering the backgrounds of the students, both those presenting and others on the council (with some noticeable influences from their adult advisors), how could it be anything else?

For example, one major section dealt with their suggestion that the district install more interactive whiteboards (IWB) in high school classrooms² and provide more training for their teachers on how to use them.

Consider that the members of this group are Juniors and Seniors, most of whom are taking lots of honors and AP/IB courses, classes in which teacher lecture/demo, with students busily taking notes in audience-style rows, is still the primary method of instruction.  Who wouldn’t want to dress that up with some flash and gimmicks?  Or to incorporate some of it into their lectures when their turn to be in that role comes up?

Three other recommendations from the students addressed learning online, although still very much within the framework of a traditional school experience.

In one they asked the board to expand availability to classes in our online high school, currently only available to a very small, select audience (homebound, disciplinary issues, special cases), and in another they asked for a mobile app to allow students to connect to our Blackboard installation.  They also advocated for the expansion of the use of online textbooks.

Considering the traditional way all these tools are currently implemented in our system, their suggestions would do very little to alter the teacher-centered, one-way, delivery-of-information instructional format so common in the live version of most of our high schools. Especially when it comes to digital textbooks, most of which differ very little from the analog versions.

Still another recommendation would allow students to use personal computing devices during the school day.  Of course, everyone in the room knew that many kids were already bringing them to school, and most of the board questions on this issue centered around concerns that students would access inappropriate material, not on how the use of these devices might change the learning environment.

Finally, the students asked the board to increase access to “digital literacy” tools like YouTube and Google Docs (oddly Word, PowerPoint and Excel were also included in their list).  As you might expect, YouTube is blocked in many of our schools and, once again, board members concerns centered on the fear students might access materials deemed to be “inappropriate”, not on any instructional applications (like maybe students being producers instead of consumers?). Google Docs is another story and something we are seriously working on.

Then there was a final section where one of the speakers addressed specific technologies the board should not invest in: wireless systems on busses, electronic ID cards, and video conferencing. An odd collection, and I wasn’t clear on why that last one was included since earlier they were enthusiastic about online courses. I would think the two would be connected.

Anyway, reading back through this long rant, I guess I might be a little negative. I especially hate criticizing kids (or anyone for that matter) who put a good faith effort into a presentation like this, even if it didn’t work as well as it could have.

However, as I said at the start, nothing in their presentation was surprising.  It very much reflects the experience of these students, most from upper middle class families and having spent ten to twelve years immersed in very traditional classrooms, especially in their high schools.

For me it also reinforces the idea that, while many if not most kids in our schools are very comfortable with a variety of powerful communications tools, they still need teachers and other adults to help them understand how to safely and effectively apply them to the learning process.

And I also wondered how the presentation would have been different if it was done by 7th graders. Or 3rd graders. Students who had fewer years of school inflicted on them.


1 – That link goes to a stream of the entire board meeting. The student presentation begins around the 20 minute mark and runs to around 1 hour 45 minutes. Unfortunately it doesn’t work well on a Mac, and not at all on iOS devices, since our IT department never met a Microsoft “standard” they didn’t love or an open standard they didn’t hate.

2 – Very naively, they even suggested moving some IWBs from our elementary schools, where they have flooded the classrooms in many of our buildings. You’ll hear the wails in California if someone tries that. :-)

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9 Comments

  1. Mark

    Is it possible, just possible, that these students LIKE traditional instruction, or that they didn’t feel like schooling was “inflicted” upon them?

    • Tim

      Schledorn makes a good point. This small group is supposed to represent ALL 176,000 students in our school district and, in that context, I’m not sure they did a good job.

      They very well may like the traditional instruction they’ve received (I’d bet most are going on to even more tradition bound colleges) but that system is not working for a large and growing group of kids, both in our system and elsewhere. Plus it’s very possible to like something that’s not the best for you.

  2. Schledorn

    I think it is very possible that students who are involved with the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council like school and don’t feel like it is inflicted on them. I also think it’s possible that they are a far cry from a representative sampling of all students in the district and that Tim’s observations still stand.

  3. kg

    I think you should volunteer to work with that group next year

    • Tim

      At the very least I will be speaking to their sponsors, AR and KW, in the Social Studies curriculum office.

  4. Dave

    They’ve spent the most recent 12/17’s of their lives in teacher-centered classrooms without 1:1 devices. They probably have never seen the full scope of what’s possible, so they don’t know what to ask for.

    …and yet, I think they definitely did ask for a major shift! With the exception of IWBs, everything they asked for sounds like an expansion of online tools that are used by students individually. (Vetoing schoolbus wifi is a red herring — bus time is very important socialization time, and wifi on the bus conjures images in students’ heads of being forced to replace that with silent study time.)

    And, even though you say that expanding some of these programs as they are now won’t be a big shift, I think it’s the only realistic next step. Once the ideas of online textbooks and coursework gain traction, you can have a discussion about the real best way to provide online learning tools…until then, most people are going to dismiss it as a scary techie pie-in-the-sky conversation. (Said differently…once the budget for online tools increases…)

    • Tim

      Dave, while I agree that the recommendations in the students’ proposal do represent at least small steps forward, that’s also part of the problem. We keep taking small steps when we need to be discussing a much larger overhaul of the system. Unfortunately, most people in our system (educators, parents and kids) are largely satisfied with the status quo, so that conversation never gets any traction.

  5. Tim, how the heck do you get away with making these kinds of observations in a public forum? 8->

    Wishing you well,
    Miguel

    • Tim

      I’m not sure what there is to get away with, Miguel. When I write about our district, I try to make my observations accurate and honest without being mean. I actually wouldn’t mind at all if my bosses challenged some of this stuff.

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