Reflections on EdTech
Today I had the pleasure of attending an event in the Scholastic Administr@tor “Live Tech Series.” The event focused on iPad implementation in schools and the Common Core set of academic standards. The program was held at Scholastic headquarters in Manhattan, which has a kind of a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory vibe to it, if you substitute kids books for candy. As I walked past the giant Harry Potter and Clifford sculptures as well as the Dinosaurs from the “How Do Dinosaur’s….” series, I kept thinking my kids would kill to be in this building! I also had the privilege of making another IRL (In Real Life) connection to someone I have connected with on Twitter: the excellent Ken Royal (@kenroyal), a Senior Editor at Scholastic who puts out a wonderful blog called The Royal Treatment . It’s always great to put a real person together with the great tweets and posts, and it was a pleasure meeting Ken.
In the iPad presentation, the architects behind the now well known Roslyn school districts’ rollout of a 1:1 program, Superintendent Dr. Dan Brenner and Plainedge Superintendent Dr. Ed Salina, Jr., spoke about their experiences in distributing iPads to faculty and students in a pilot program. They unveiled a really comprehensive new web site that discuses the Roslyn program in detail, including access to all the documentation they utilized in designing it and communicating with school stakeholders. (See this video from their web site about the roll out). They shared many valuable ideas, but the items that stuck out the most with me were the following:
1) We say it until we are blue in the face, but training is crucial. In the Roslyn district, they distributed the iPads to faculty members a full six months before they were given to students, to allow the teachers to get comfortable using the devices and to engage in extensive training. In a follow up conversation at lunch, Dr. Brenner went so far as to say that for every one dollar spent on technology, we must spend THREE dollars in professional development, or else it is simply a waste of money. That figure may sound strange to some people, but it indicates how important training is towards getting tech tools actually used in the classroom.
2) The “cools apps” are definitely cool and fun, and they definitely draw people to a device. But they don’t generally improve the education. As Dr. Brenner writes on the program web site, “It’s not about a cool application. We are talking about changing the way we do business in the classroom.” Instead, they chose to focus on practical and efficient uses of the device, including the iAnnotate app for submission and grading of assignments, and utilizing the (often untapped) power of Outlook to automatically route assignments to correct folders for particular classes and students.
3) This shift to the iPads was not forced upon the faculty (apparently, due to union rules, they would not have been able to anyway). Instead, they solicited volunteers to participate in the pilot program, and they were pleased to note that several of the faculty that fell in love with the iPad had actually never used a computer before.
4) During the lunchtime conversation, Dr. Brenner contrasted his district’s approach to the iPad rollout to the standard school district approach to Smartboards. While many schools simply bought Smartboards for their classrooms, either because of a general desire to utilize technology in the classroom, or because they would be perceived as “behind the times” if they did NOT, the training of teachers to actually utilize the interactive white board was generally not sufficient. As a result, said Dr. Brenner, we have a very sophisticated technology tool sitting in many of our classrooms, and in most situations, it is being used as a glorified electronic display to show powerpoints or videos.
This last point got me thinking. Have we been barking up the wrong tree when it comes to Smartboards and classroom technology? Over the last decade, I have seen Smartboards installed as a matter of course in my own school and many other institutions. Is this the best use of our technology dollars? To be clear, I am not suggesting I know the answer. I consider myself a solid Smartboard user, but I know that I am not even scratching the surface in terms of what it can be used for. So I ask you: In terms of how teachers actually use the board, would it make more sense to invest less than half of the approximately $5,000-$6,000 it costs for a Smartboard and simply install a projector and whiteboard for display purposes? Should our tech funds be utilized for devices that encourage student generated content, like iPads? Drs. Brenner and Salina emphasized that when they directed funds to be utilized for the iPad program, it did not require securing additional money. It came from budget savings, like not having to reinvest in new machines in a computer lab, and being able to reclaim the computer labs as regular classrooms. In terms of prioritizing funds, in an age where we are trying to encourage student directed and project based learning, might those funds be better spent on devices like the iPad?
Again, I do not know the answer to this question. There may be a whole army of teachers out there who feel that the smartboard (instead of a standard projector display) is really being utilized fully in their classrooms, is essential to effective instruction, and I am way off base here. And I really am not a Smartboard hater. I enjoy using in the classroom, and I find that it helps my instruction. But so much more than a projector and screen? Not sure.
That’s why I am asking the question. Are we barking up the wrong tree here? I look forward to your thoughts.