Sunday, January 31, 2010

New and Improved! Technology initiatives in education.

Time for a big-ass rant.

The Tempered Radical knows why teachers give up on Interactive White Boards. With some major snipping, and hoping I don't eliminate context:
What bothers me ... is an attitude towards teachers that I see often in conversations about school change. "Teachers all resistant to change and lazy!" the argument goes. "If they'd just be persistent and determined, our schools would be saved." ... The general belief is that teachers lack determination and commitment in almost every circumstance.
... that's a flawed assumption. ... the amount of effort that most changes take doesn't align with the corresponding benefits that change is designed to produce. ... The software wasn't designed to naturally facilitate the kinds of teaching that I believe in and limited access to the hardware required that I restructure learning time in my classroom almost every day.
I'm all over this. I think that the programmers who do this stuff should spend some time teaching to find out how the "real-world" will use it and what those teachers actually need. This is, for me, the crux of the problem. Those who write don't know what problem they are trying to solve and often do not have a clue as to how I will use it. (Sort of an educational consultant, no?)

Then, the pressures of making a sale get in the way of making my life easier. All too often, the person making the purchase isn't the one who gets to use it. Even if they asked the teachers, they're still asking someone who hasn't used it and can't really tell.

There are four major problems with technology and tech initiatives: Variety, the learning curve, Usability and Availability.

The rant is below this break.

MS Word, OpenOffice, Google Docs; MAC vs PC; wikis, blogs, GoogleDocs, twitter, facebook, a million Web2.0 sites; GradeQuick, Powerschool, BlackBoard. This list is a tiny fraction of the options available to me. If I put everything together for PC and the Office suite, should I suddenly redo it all when the school upgrades - or when my wife's school upgrades and the home computers do or don't?

Does Scott Macleod's obsession with transformation mean that I have to transform according to his specifications? I hope not.

I am using what works for me. Your flavor might work too, but as Bill argues and I agree, the cost of conversion is often higher than I care to spend right now. And I'm one of the geeks. What actual benefit can be found in converting? Tell me that and I'll go for it.

My colleagues have a higher "benefit" threshold, though. Online gradebooks started this year (I volunteered to do the training), and I stressed the ease of printing a progress report and the chance to put things online for ill students. Had I told everyone that they had to be fully invested from the word "go", they'd have tuned me out. It would have been nice to repurpose some inservice time for it, but we managed.

Like the Highly Ineffectual Principal he is though, our HIPster didn't get it. He is now ratcheting up the "standards" before anyone is comfortable. He wants everyone to put lots of time into it but can't free us from mindnumbing inservices to do it. Pushback. Push back.

Technology isn't the magic cure-all, either. I LOVE blackboards. There really isn't much reason to eliminate the 18 feet of beautiful slate in favor of a 4 foot piece of gee-whiz. If the IWB is an addition, then "woot!" but new isn't necessarily better, it's just different.

You don't need Excel to average 20 numbers. Or even a calculator.
You don't need a spreadsheet or database to deal with your grades (but it does make things a little easier).
You don't need Blogger to tell your kids the homework. or texting, or podcasts, or wikis, or a lot of this junk. If you can, great. But you don't NEED it.

The learning curve:
This is the flip side of the "benefit" threshold - the cost of converting. You need to start small and give the faculty (and the students) the time and training to pick up the new software and make the changes to their daily lives to fit the software. If you don't give them either, they will nod and move to more pressing matters like, oh I don't know, maybe teaching?

The other thing is that you have confidentiality and sensitivity issues. Jumping right in and forcing everyone to play ball before training only makes the inevitable mistakes harder to handle.

I was called in to help another teacher fix her grades 70% of the way through the course. She hadn't weighted her terms or her categories properly and had wrong dates for terms, start dates, etc. -- and this was the computer teacher. I told the principal that unless he wanted to redo all of the transcripts for all of her students, then we shouldn't touch it because they were all going to get changed grades (a month after report cards had been sent).

We had gone too far, too fast and most faculty were barely getting it right and some, like this one, were messing up big time.

Added to this mess was that the guidance department was convinced it knew what it was doing, but was missing very important details, like making sure that global settings were done. This year, apparently, started in Aug 2008 and so all of the teachers' gradebooks thought the first day was fourth marking period. Then, the first day of 2010 was showing up as 1910 and the "out of chronological order" popups were flying everywhere -- because guidance hadn't applied the update that had come out six months earlier. BTW, the tech guy refuses to be responsible for the gradebook system because they purchased it without consulting him (or some such BS), so the guidance counselor is trying to do the administration for it, too. Not surprisingly, she doesn't get things right.

Then, of course, you have usability, the redheaded step-child of the computer development teams. It's obvious they didn't think everything through.
  • Tell me why you need a "wizard" to add a mark to your spreadsheet.
  • Why can't I type in the date? Why do I have to use the drop down calendar?
  • Tell me why there isn't enough room in the category field for the word "classwork" or "participation" - haven't we heard of a lookup field and a normalized database?
  • Tell me why clicking on the spreadsheet adds a new student.
  • Why isn't there an UNDO feature?
  • Why does the guidance secretary need to click through 13 different menus and popups to import grades from a single course from one teacher and then print it out for verification?
  • Tell me why important settings are in four different preferences screens, accessible from different menus without rhyme or reason. The faculty ask "How do you know this stuff?" and I reply "Because I do it over and over with each of you and the repetition helps me remember. You only do this step once per year and it's something guidance should have set globally anyway -- why would you bother remembering it?"
  • Tell me why Blogger jumps me all the way to the top of my editing window if I bold-face something at the bottom?
  • Tell me why I'm ranting?
SmartBoard software is a dim cousin of, and less useful version of, PowerPoint, which is a problem all its own. The included graphics are lame, the lessons are silly and many are flawed, and the "tools" are pale versions of things found elsewhere. Any notebook gets edited by the student running it - there's no way to block those changes so the next kid can run it from the beginning. (What? Why?)

The lessons I find at TeqSmart are amazing in a "can't turn away from a trainwreck" sort of way. The learning curve on this piece of software is pretty steep and not worth the time and effort, in my mind, even though I did it.

But LOOKIE, I can TOUCH it! and wrilewrite with my finger. And it has SOUNDS! and I can ROLL a DIE! (pretty much how the 3-credit training course went) Yes, I got three credits for something learned in about 30 minutes RTFM. Sue me.

Why do I give a damn about a SmartBoard if I can't get one? I was told I could "Borrow" the one from across the hall. Anyone who has one knows how that would go. If I make every kid use Google Docs, they all have to have Google accounts. If I want everyone on Excel, I have to have a computer for at least half of them. This gets expensive. If you want to throw money away on a one-laptop-per thing, okay, I'll go along and make use of it. Otherwise, shut up and let me use my blackboard. I'll sign out the computer room when I can, but there ARE other teachers in the building.

In summation:
I am in favor of technology and would actively use an IWB were it to appear in my room, but I get annoyed when people like Scott Macleod go all "Techno uber alles" on me.

Kids minds haven't changed much in the "mumble-mumble" years I've been doing this. They can put their toys away and learn.

Learning is hard and technology is no shortcut. "There is no Royal Road" and all that. GeeWhiz is like CheeseWhiz - kids love it, it's sorta nutritious and it holds their attention, but it isn't all that great most times.

P6: Proper Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
Forget that at your peril.


  1. A few thoughts:

    1. I am in complete agreement with most of what you've said here. Many of the tech vendors are snake oil salesmen, pitching products with little meaning or usefulness to practicing teachers. Moreover, many of the technologies that potentially could be really helpful to classroom instructors are poorly designed, unnecessarily complex, created without knowledge of teachers' real work, etc. For the most part, administrators are not savvy evaluators and purchasers of technology products. The IT people who make many of the purchasing decisions often have little understanding of teachers' day-to-day reality. Smart districts that actually want educators to effectively use these tools that are bought with preciously scant dollars will involve front-end users in purchasing decisions. And, as you note, how most schools do tech training for teachers is simply horrendous.

    2. There always is an implementation dip:

    Administrators and teachers need to recognize and plan for it.

    3. The world IS digital now. We can't pretend that P-12 schooling will somehow be immune from the technological shifts that are transforming other information-oriented societal sectors.

    4. I try not to be an uncritical cheerleader of technology. I do spend a lot of time thinking about counter-arguments and what schools do well. For example:

    That said, I also try to be realistic about the fact that this technology / information revolution that's upheaving our society outside school will change how we think about and do schooling as well.

    5. If you have the time and inclination, I'd be interested in reading your thoughts sometime about my December presentation to the NEA Board of Directors:
    (see the Update for a synchronized version)

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  2. amen! We have been told next year we have to use a online gradebook site so parents can log in to see their kids' grades. So we have been suggested to use it last year and this year. Sounds nice and all, but it doesn't do half the stuff any regular grade book program does. How about putting the class average on a printout? Nope. How about seeing the grades updated as I put them in? Nope I have to check a box that says "grading completed" then submit!

    I won't go on, but I sent an email asking for help/suggestions about it and it turned into a school wide bitch session about the thing. I even got a nice visit from our dean of technology who was in charge of putting it together. I was told that, "we should embrace technology" and that my "emails might scare some of the staff from wanting to try it."

    ok I'm done.