Tag Archives: 24/7 Learning

Misfire

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry.

In a recent blog piece, Shifting, I was excited to talk about schools and districts around the country that have chosen to move past traditional textbooks by embracing new technologies.  Instead of outdated, dog-eared, back-bending tomes, students in these districts now have efficient access to current information in dynamic formats – all in a 1 lb. package.

The incentive to write the piece, though, wasn’t just the opportunities offered by the tools themselves.  Rather it was the scale at which these tools are now being deployed.  Specifically of note was the Los Angeles Unified School District’s passage of a $1 billion bond to support technology integration in all of its schools beginning this fall.  660,000 students would benefit from this massive investment.  Exciting stuff.

Or at least that was the hope.

News hit Twitter in early October that the LA technology rollout didn’t go so well.  Problems snowballed and the district made the dramatic decision to recall the devices provided to students just weeks prior.  Effective immediately

District officials cited numerous reasons for the recall, all of which boil down to failed deployment.  It happened too fast, with too little engagement of teachers, students and families, lack of attention to effective policies, inadequate professional development, and a host of other issues.  You can read more about them in Stephanie Banchero and Erica E. Phillips’ recent Wall Street Journal piece, “Schools Learn Tablets Limits”.

While it’s awfully tempting to write a blog piece about what went wrong in LA and who is responsible – because let’s face it, a failure of this magnitude has repercussions for all of us working on technology integration nationwide – it’s the WSJ story with which I’m actually going to take issue.  Failed technology integration is bad, but I think failure to tell the story right is worse.

The Banchero/Phillips piece uses the LA story as a hook for an article about the controversy surrounding tech integration efforts.  It cites conflicting research, categorizes those involved in the conversation as “skeptics” and “advocates”, and profiles districts that have struggled to negotiate the fraught transition to a 1:1 device environment.  While some experts are quoted as emphasizing the potential of technology to create learning opportunities that best fit students’ needs, the balance of the piece tips heavily toward the obstacles.  And no wonder, with the LA story in the mix.

The problem in this framing, though, is that it lumps too much into one pot.  It tries to debate the question of whether technology integration improves learning, while referencing examples where – it must be argued – technology integration never really took place.

Making hardware available in schools is only one of many, many complicated steps in the technology integration process.  If the hardware arrives before these other needs are attended to (as evidently was the case in LA), its potential to positively impact student learning is greatly reduced.  Even worse, resulting frustrations, confusion, and course-corrections damage morale and cost essential learning time and resources.

The LA Unified School District experience isn’t evidence against the effectiveness of technology integration.  It’s evidence of a district that failed to actually achieve technology integration.

The Maine Learning Technology Initiative, one of the country’s oldest ubiquitous technology integration initiatives, sought to develop and attend to what are now widely accepted standards of what constitutes effective technology integration.  Their 2011 report is filled with compelling evidence demonstrating that – when the standards of effective integration are met – both students and teachers benefit.

Here in Vermont, where the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education works with educators throughout the state to support effective technology integration, results are similarly positive.  Students saw improved semester grades in English, science and social studies.  Boys experienced a 21% decrease in absentee days (a key measure of engagement) after just one year of technology integration, and students involved in a middle-school-level program had a lower high school drop-out rate than their peers statewide.  Put more simply, it works. 

One would likely be hard-pressed to find a school that would say technology integration is easy.  Pressures of time, financial resources, mandated testing, and parallel initiatives to name a few can imperil the shift before it even begins.  Some schools, though, are deftly managing these challenges.  And their students are thriving.

The fact is that a billion dollars was easier to come by in LA than the leadership, time, flexibility, and learning needed to ensure the returns on such an investment could be realized.  That’s both bad and worth writing about.  Let’s not confuse a discussion, though, about the challenges of managing effective technology integration, with one about whether it works.

                                                                                                                                               

Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.

Shifting

Friday, April 5, 2013

The surge of technology integration in our country’s schools continues.

In March, the Los Angeles Unified School district announced it would invest $50M initially, and likely $500M over the next few years, to provide 1:1 technology devices to each of its 660,000 students.  Companies like Apple, HP and others are expected to bid on parts of this massive contract – competing to provide the very best in education technology at a price point that schools can afford.

This latest broad-scale, ubiquitous technology integration comes in the wake of many others.  Maine’s Learning Technology Initiative began providing Apple laptops to all of the state’s middle school students – and now high school students as well – more than a decade ago.  Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and others followed suit with large-scale programs involving multiple districts, schools and grade levels in their K-12 systems.

The LA announcement, though, signals a major domino in the progression of school-based technology integration.  It’s the second largest district in the country, with more than six times the total number of public school students and educators in the entire state of Vermont.

The New York City School District is even larger.  Nearly twice as large, in fact, and it too is taking important steps.  The Associated Press reports in its article “Schools Shift from Textbooks to Tablets” that the District is considering doing away with the $100M it sinks annually into paper textbooks for students to lug around, and instead investing those funds in tablets.  Even in a district with 1.1 million students, that kind of money could purchase a new tablet for every single learner every two years.

And of course those tablets can do so much more than a traditional textbook ever could.  They can fit all of a student’s books into a single, thin package at a fraction of the weight.  They can be constantly updated with the most current information and thinking.  They can do double-duty enabling learners to engage electronically in class discussion or take on-the-fly assessments testing for reading comprehension.

In other words, the tablet can fit — and grow with — the learner.

How big of a shift is this really?  For the young people who are using these tablets, laptops and other devices, it isn’t one.  “Students, unlike some of their parents, aren’t blinking,” the AP article observes.  The real shift for them is being asked to leave behind their technology-enabled world and make the backward leap to a clunky, outdated textbook.

It’s imperative that districts, schools, parents, students, foundations like ours, businesspeople, and community members do everything we can to support the transition to digital tools for our learners.  We’re chipping away at the digital learning divide here in Vermont as elsewhere around the country, but we still have a very long way to go.

At some point, technology integration in school can no longer be thought of as “an initiative” or “a program”.  It needs to be thought of simply as the way we do business.

And lest we think it takes a massive budget or outside funding to make this work, we should look at places like Coachella Valley Unified School District in California, where some of the very poorest schools in the nation rolled out 20,000 iPads for students this year.

The time for widespread, effective technology-supported learning is now.  It is who our students are, how they want to learn, and the world in which they live.  Onward.

                                                                                                                                               

Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.

Techonomics?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Earlier this year I was sitting in on an economics class at an innovative high school in the Bronx.  Students were working with their teacher to define core concepts in a capitalist system.  Private property, economic justice, profit motive and … competition.

“What’s an example of competition that we’ve seen here in the neighborhood,” the teacher asked.

After some guessing the chorus went up.  “The bodegas!”

Turns out a few years ago a price war erupted among local bodegas.  Not over how much they were charging for a PowerAde or a bag of chips.  This was a price war about phones.

When the school banned the possession of cell phones on campus, the surrounding bodegas started charging students $.50 a day to stash their phones.  Competition eventually drove the price down to $.25, which is what kids pay today for the privilege of not bringing their phones to school.

The bodegas score points here for innovative business practice, and the teacher for latching onto an economics lesson that is so personally relevant to her students.  It’s the students though who are losing.  And much more than $.25 a day.  They’re losing access to a powerful, free (to the school anyway), and engaging learning tool.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are legitimate, important reasons to be cautious about integrating phones in schools.  I can’t begin to imagine the challenge that building leaders and educators face trying to design a set of rules that will keep students safe and on-task.  Phones can be distracting.  Worse, they can be damaging or even deadly if turned into cyber-bullying weapons.

Many schools have taken up these challenges, though, and are – on large and small scale – finding ways to support kids using their phones to learn, collaborate, document and share.

Take this economics class.  For kids facing a steep uphill climb to an affordable postsecondary education, learning how to use a phone-based personal finance tool – one that builds from a student’s actual earnings, spending, savings and goals – could be life changing [Econ Ed Live!, Mint Personal Finance].  There’s also free access to stock trading and simulation games [Stock Wars, iTrade, Tap Tap Trader], study aid and flashcard apps [Flashcards+, gFLASH+, Economics AP Free], business simulation games [Coffee Shop, Lemonade Stand, Rags to Riches], and grade-level-appropriate economics quiz games – including ones that will test your ability to define competition [Financial Football, Economics Review, Economics Study Aid and Quiz].

When drawn into other subject areas, students can tweet or backchannel into class discussions ensuring that all voices are active and heard, capture images from a compound microscope to illustrate study notes or a lab report, or … my husband’s personal favorite … take video of a spectacular explosion in chemistry class to enjoy with students (ahem, I mean analyze) over, and over, and over again.

I don’t ever check my phone at the door in the course of my working day.  I use it – as I do all of the technology to which I have access – to facilitate my productivity, my curiosity, my professional collaboration, and my progress.

Schools across the country are turning over every funding stone they can find to help give learners more access to technology in the course of their school day.  I think it’s up to us to figure out how to make better use of the technology that’s already in their hands.

I’ll keep my $.25 cents, thanks.  And my phone.

                                                                                                                                               

Lauren A. Curry has been the executive director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.