Notes From Techcon 2012

Techcon 2012

Techcon occurred October 26, 2012 at the Naperville Campus of Northern Illinois University. Over 160 local school administrators, technology leaders, and classroom teachers convened for the one-day session.

Google’s Jaime Casap (Twitter: @jcasap) was the keynote speaker. His presentation focused on the crisis of low expectations and that even though the jobs that will exist in 2037 are not known today, several skills exists today that are fundamental to success years away: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, analyzing information, and problem solving.

He noted that we learn and solve problems in different ways so we should have different types of assessment. Further students today have new capabilities to learn differently and that education is beginning to take advantage of new learning models.

With one of the themes of the conference was about cloud resources, sessions addressed the Illinicloud, and Google, Apple, and Microsoft cloud offerings. Other sessions outlined digital learning opportunities, a 1:1 implementation, digital mapping, Open Education Resources, and social networking applications in schools.

Apple’s Patrick Beedles (Twitter: @beedles_apple) closed the day with a summary of the day’s key points.

This day-long program is a strong collaboration of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials , the Illinois Computing Educators, and the Illinois Chief Technology Officers.

Next year’s conference is at the same location on October 18, 2013.

Where’s the Education Leadership on Technology in Schools?

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In 1988, Congress’ Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) reported the “most promising current uses  and demonstrations” (pp.12-13) for computers:

  • Drill and practice to master basic skills.
  • Development of writing skills.
  • Problem solving
  • Understanding abstract mathematics and science concepts.
  • Simulation in science, mathematics and social studies.
  • Manipulation of data.
  • Acquisition of computer skills for general purposes, and for business and vocational training.
  • Access and communication traditionally unserved populations of students
  • Access and communications for teachers and students in remote locations
  • Individualized learning
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Management of classroom activities and record keeping (pp. 12-14)

Looking at the list, the last — Record keeping:  student information systems, payroll systems, business functions, human resources systems, and the like have been implemented in many schools.  We have implemented technology to handle the mundane.  The other applications have spotty implementation and without significant transformation.

In Technopoly, technology and cultural critic Neil Postman states that

“[T]he main characteristic of all tool-using cultures is that their  tools were largely invented to do two things:  To solve specific and urgent problems of physical life, such as water power, wind mills, and the heavy wheeled plow; or to serve the symbolic world of art politics, ritual, and religion, as the construction of castles and cathedrals. . .” (p. 23).

Considering this view with schools, school leaders are largely tool thinkers:  “Technology is a tool.”  So the focus becomes those  issues not directly related to teaching learning:  mundane management things (recording keeping, paying bills).  Yes, states are requiring data and so school leaders respond to the “urgent” demands of regulators.

Further some school leaders contend that their teachers “integrate” technology.  This is not much beyond the tool user.  Hardware and software are purchased independently of their curricular design and use.  Teachers are herded into a room shown the new gizmo and told to “integrate” it into their curriculum.   This is a recipe for failure.  Teachers have no direction, support, or encouragement to succeed.  It’s up to them to find ways to use stuff with their kids.  Just another thing to do.

School transformation occurs when school leaders insist that hardware and software are part of the curricular design and focuses on learning.  It’s time school leaders realize the potential and implement it in their classrooms.  Otherwise the other ideas that OTA identified in 1988 will continue to be on somebody’s list of promising practices.

Good Advice for School Technology Leaders

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In the May 21 issue of Forbes, the article “Thrifty Does It,” describes how Christian Gheorghe Hates started a billion dollar company with a shoestring budget.  School leaders tell their communities that they must do more with less.

Hates’ strategies show how he cut costs nearly 90% while he was able to deliver quality technical services.  Here’s what he did:

  • Replaced server purchases with leased server space in the cloud.
  • Replaced licensed email products with Gmail.
  • Replaced productivity software with google docs.
  • Replaced database software with databases purchased in the cloud.
  • Replaced telco services with VOIP services for phones.
  • Replaced internal file sharing hardware with box.com.
  • Replaced system testing software with open source.

While school technology departments may not be considering using alternative services and may be against specific brand names that Hates uses, he is successful at dumping expensive licensing and using free or inexpensive services to run the technical services of his company.  There’s a lesson here for school technology leaders.

With Technology in Schools Nothing Has Changed

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With technology in schools nothing has changed.  Several years ago, I performed some original research about technology in schools (reference).

While this study occurred in a limited scope with a few school districts and I stated it could not be generalized, the results appear to be similar to what is appearing in popular media today.  The results:

(a) educational technology policy formulation focused on collecting the objects of technology, such as computers, modems, networks, and the like, rather than viewing educational technology as a systematic process of achieving goals;

(b) active leadership from a superintendent was essential in each school district, formulation of the plans was more than an empowered committee or executive blessing, and it required active participation by a superintendent;

(c) school districts developed educational technology policies regardless of their financial state;

(d) educational technology policy formulation occurred without regard for student demographics;

(e) applied technology or technology education–including electronics, robotics, video production, industrial technology, and metals technology–was part of educational technology policy formulation in two of the three school districts;

(f) while planning focused on the objects of educational technology, planners took little action on other elements of educational technology planning, such as staff development, finance, evaluation, and school cultural issues;

(g) technology planners did little to communicate aspects of their educational technology plan to their school communities;

(h) educational technology policy was a political process. Whether it was a new superintendent pushing his technology agenda or a teacher influencing a computer purchase, politics were part of the process; and

(i) the planning committees were not representative of the school community.

Looking at today’s social media posts in a very unscientific fashion, nothing has changed:

(a)  Today’s social media postings are about buying tablets and the “top 10 apps.”  Little in the social media is about students learning and focusing on students.  It’s about “buying” and “integrating” — a lost cause.

(b)  Leadership is always essential;  today it appears to be driven by peer pressure.  An executive administrator or a board member attends a conference where a school district reports on an effort of a presenting district and “tada” technology is purchased and expected to be used.  Many times the initiatives are way out of context.  Yes, leadership is essential, but is largely misplaced.

(c) They continue to plan, but with dwindling funds.

(d)  It still happens everywhere.  Wish lists are developed, regardless of the school district.

(e)  Still part of planning.

(f)  Professional development continues to be a challenge as teachers are taught skills, told to integrate, and left to go their way.  Usually not successful and not worth the results.

(g)  Communication about technology is swamped by NCLB and budget reductions.

(h)  It’s one of the most dynamic political processes as teachers and groups work to get the latest techno gizmos.

(i)  Planning committees still are composed of techno geeks and not representative of the larger community.

So the cycle continues.  Purchasing new hardware and then professional development is focused on integration – not transformation.  Teachers continue to teach the same old ways except with new technologies.  They no longer focus on “computers, modems, networks, and the like,” but it’s tablets, apps, wifi, white boards, and web 2.0.”  Their attitudes and practices around technology in schools remain the same.  Nothing has changed.  I did not expect that my research was a “game changer,” (another overused word choice to accent the insanity of technology in schools) but I was hoping that a new group of school leaders would emerge that would transform teaching and learning.  Well, with technology in schools, nothing has changed.

Students should bring their computers to school

Students have more computing power in their pockets than schools can consistently provide to them. photo from: http://thepreppyprincess.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/iphone-parallels.jpg

  This is the second posting connected to the future of technology in schools. In the last posting, cloud computing in schools was considered.  This entry considers personal technology in schools         

Students should bring their computers to school and pull their phones from their pockets.  Students have more computer power in their pockets and in their netbooks at home than they routinely get at school.In all good measure, school districts and states cannot sustain one-to-one computer initatives.  Anything in schools that has an implementation timeline more than three years will get curtailed before full implementation because of budget reductions and yet another new program.  The initial excitement of providing students their own computer soon wanes in the reality of implementation, support, professional development, and other organizational issues.           

School transformation can occur when devices are routinely put into students’ hands.  They own more computing power than any school district can sustain.  Textbooks and teachers continue to be the most important curriculum materials in schools.  The school library is now very transparent with online circulation system and online resources, yet students continue to visit computer labs or have computer carts rolled into their classrooms.  With the technology available to kids, why do schools still look like this?        

Kids are forced to hide their phones and access is restricted to networks for any personally owned computers.  With the shrinkage of school budgets, schools should turn to students’ personal technologies (phones, netbooks, and notebooks).  Technology departments will never be able to keep up with the stated computer replacement cycles.  Open the wireless networks, provide power charging stations or battery exchange stations, and change the punitive anti-technology board policies.         

With more features and functions in personal technologies, students should be able to use their phones as calculators or as their assignment notebooks, but because these features are in a phone, the technology is banned.  Students have their phones; they are using them, regardless of how much the adults attempt to extinguish the personal technologies.  Prohibition has never worked. (No, I am not promoting drug use or alcohol abuse for teens.)  One thousand students with their internet-connected phones have the total storage capacity of 16 terabytes of data and a combined bandwidth of 200 megabits per second.  What school can afford that storage or bandwidth?         

Technology departments should begin to work with teachers who are ready for students to use their personal technologies in schools.  This should be led by the curriculum not the technologists.  Teachers can refine their existing materials to put learning more in students’s hands and their technologies. This is a practical direction for school districts.  Schools can provider loaner system for students who do not have personal technologies.  Book fees and technology fees would cover such loaner systems.  It’s time to move toward student technologies rather than rely on shrinking school budgets that cannot keep pace.