Feb 14

Humanity, Community and Technology in School

Technology is not a neutral tool.  It is rewriting the way we think about everything in our society from communication to security to commerce to privacy to, of course, learning. The potential for that to be a force for good is near limitless, but we should be thoughtfully skeptical when we think about the uses of educational technology especially when it comes to the larger issue of school reform and the continued rise of edu-business.

In the spring of 2012, at the opening keynote of Education Innovation Summit,  Michael Moe told a room full of education entrepreneurs that over 90%  of the many billions of dollars spent on education in the United States was spent on personnel, and the only way to further monetize the education sector, as he called it, was to reduce personnel costs. To the few teachers in the room his point was clear–if you want to use technology to make money and education you have to find a way to reduce the number of teachers. And there are many powerful people who seem to agree with Mr. Moe’s statements.

So let us be clear – technology should not be used to supplant teachers. When we use the tools we love as an excuse to reduce the number of caring adults who interact with children, we run the risk of doing irreparable harm. In fact we almost guarantee it.

School is about much more than Newton’s Laws of Motion or the difference between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution – though both those things are important. When done well, schools help children learn how to live lives of meaning. When done right, schools help children become profoundly and active citizens. When done with care, schools help children learn how to care for one another. Technology alone cannot do those things. The purpose of school is not to train children but to teach them, and that requires the human element. If anything, we need more adults in schools not fewer.

Technology is and must be a transformative element in our schools. Fundamentally, it changes the equation of why we come to school. Whereas before we came to school because the teacher was there, now we come to school because we are all there together. Technology can allow us to embrace a more finely honed sense of community in our schools.

The mistake is thinking that we no longer need this thing called school because we have all of these new technologies.  And the greater mistake is thinking that all we need to do is develop the right app or the right product and we can buy and sell our way to a technological future of learning that no longer needs the people.  The logical end of that path is a level of solipsism that our society cannot and should not abide.

It is not that technology should supplant school, rather it should transform it. The promise of educational technology is that we can reinvent and re-imagine schools as the center of a community of learning. It is true that we no longer have to define school as four walls and floor, but let us not use that to throw away all that we have learned over the past hundred years of public school experiment. Let us instead mind the rich vein of educational history to find those moments of empowerment, those moments of connection, those moments of authenticity, those moments of care. Let us realize that those moments – more often than not – came at the intersection of a caring teacher and the students who trusted her. And then let us ask ourselves how can the technology enhance, magnify, multiply and transform those moments so that more children can feel that their learning matters and that there school matters every day.

And that is the promise of these tools we love so much. Anything short of a vision of educational technology use that allows students and teachers to inquire more deeply, research more broadly, connect more intensely, share more widely and create more powerfully, sells short the power of these tools — and more importantly, sells short the promise of learning and of school for our students.

And that we cannot and should not abide.

Jul 28

New Work Flow with Tech

[This might be my first purely techie post in a long time, but hey…]

For the first time as a principal, I have a desktop computer on my desk.

I’ve always just carried my laptop to and from school every day, but with the launch of the iPad, I thought it might be time for a change. The laptop is good enough, but there were starting to be too many times when I wanted more screen real estate, and I found myself really envying my wife’s big honking desktop, but the big issue was really that I didn’t want files in two places. My laptop was organized to the point where it was pretty much hardwired to my brain. (My knapsack is like that too, but even it is wearing out… some might argue, so’s my brain.) With the summer hitting, and with a realization that carrying my laptop and my iPad to and from school every day was really counter-productive, I made the leap.

How I made the changes:
1) DropBox – For $100 / year, I get 50 gigs of space. About 99% of the files I use are in two folders (with dozens of sub-folders. I’m a file organization nut.) What I love about DropBox is that the files really do live on the computers, and DropBox syncs the changes, as opposed to having to pull from the cloud every time. Also, DropBox has apps for the iPad and iPhone, so I can get to my files no matter if I’m on my home machine (now the laptop), school machine or iPad.

2) MobileMe – Syncs my calendar and contacts and mail accounts between all the machines for $100 / year. And I found that Back To My Mac has been useful for those times when I do need a file on the school machine that isn’t in the DropBox folder. If iDisk was a bit more robust, I wouldn’t need DropBox, but for now, DropBox blows iDisk away.

3) EverNote – I use this for my general note-taking on the iPad… it’s quick, it syncs easily, and it is very easy to keep notes organized. It is also replacing "Stickies" for my quick "jot it down" notes on the computers — which is a really, really good thing. If iOS4 for the iPad allows users to push documents to iDisk or DropBox, I could see this starting to lose luster, but for now, I love it.

4) GoogleApps – Perhaps this was just plain luck, but Chris Alfano, SLA’s amazing web developer, convinced me to move SLA’s mail to Google Mail as part of our strategy to use GoogleDocs and GoogleApps more. (As a hard-core DIY former-sys-admin, I was probably a harder sell than I should have been… what’s that slide I have in my slide-deck, "What are you willing to unlearn?" I’m still evolving.) Using the SLA GoogleApps suite was awesome — and that needs to be its own post — and once I realized (again, thanks Chris A.) how I could set up my own GoogleApps suite for Practical Theory – including moving my Practical Theory email – another piece fell into place. GoDaddy had long only provided POP mail support, but now, with Google hosting my personal email, I had access to an IMAP account, which was a huge piece of the puzzle for streamlining the workflow between iPad, iPhone, laptop and school computer. So far, I am just using GoogleApps standard edition for my private GoogleApps account, but at $50 / year, if there’s a reason to upgrade to Premium, I won’t mind doing it.

(I’ve long used Spanning Sync as a way to sync up iCal and Google Calendar… I’m not 100% sure it’s necessary anymore, as it seems just too easy to subscribe to GoogleCalendars on iCal on all platforms, but I like that it makes the calendars native to my Mac accounts, as opposed to subscriptions… and I bought a lifetime account, so for now, I’m still syncing that way. I don’t think you have to, if you’re looking at what I’m doing as a model.)

(I’m also thinking about moving my Flickr account to Picasa, but I don’t think it has the social network that Flickr has yet. Yet.)

What all this has done has made every machine I work on, essentially, a thin client for my work, which is awesome. I love not taking the laptop to and from school every day, and I’m now thinking about replacing the old knapsack with something a little lighter for every day use.

Things I’ve noticed that I really like:
I love using the iPad as my primary mobile device. When it is paired with the bluetooth keyboard, it is a hugely productive tool. I think the keyboard is the thing that moves it from primarily a media consumption device to a productivity tool. I’m looking forward to doing observations on the iPad this year.

DropBox really is amazing. And I created aliases to put on my laptop and school computer so that the folders I most use are still only one click away, as opposed to two. (Yes, I’m that OCD sometimes.)

Using the iPad as a note-taking mobile-meeting device has had two unexpected ancillary benefits. First, because it doesn’t multi-task, I don’t multi-task as much. Even writing this blog entry, I stayed on it the whole time. I’m actually not as excited for iOS4 for the iPad because of that. (Who am I kidding… I’m just hoping I’m learning the lesson of self-discipline… who am I kidding again? Must check twitter…) Secondly, because it has a smaller footprint (I use the Apple case that tilts it diagonally up slightly on its horizontal axis,) I find that it allows me to be more present in meetings where I’m using it as a note-taking tool than my laptop did, because I’m not working over the top of a laptop screen.

After five years without a desktop screen, using the big honking iMac is lovely. Screen real-estate when analyzing spreadsheets and such is really nice to the point where I’ve thought about getting a personal desktop at home and really making the laptop a really secondary machine that would mostly be for long trips and such. I am even going to try to present from my iPad tomorrow, which would mean I wouldn’t even need my laptop for conferences and such.

Things I’m hoping happen soon:
I’m hoping that MobileMe will soon allow me to store my iTunes library in the cloud as well. Rumor is that is soon to happen. Until then, I’m using my iPad as my office jukebox, which isn’t the worst solution, really.
The iPad won’t really be a full production device until you can push documents created or modified on the Pad to the cloud via DropBox or iDisk. Right now, if I work on an iWord (Pages, Keynote, Numbers) document on the iPad, I can only get it off of the Pad by syncing the device with a computer. It’s why I use Evernote all the time instead. In the end, that is hamstringing me from time to time, as it creates the "multiple copies of the same document" problem that I absolutely want to avoid. My fear is that Apple only allows you to do it with iDisk. My hope is that DropBox can be push/pull too. (Hey Apple, if you are reading this… please make this happen!)
GoogleDocs functionality on the iPad – this could be better… and hopefully will be soon.

Thing I don’t love:
This is a "cloud" problem that is exacerbated by using multiple devices. I don’t love that my files are in DropBox, my GoogleDocs are in Google, my notes are in Evernote, and I need MobileMe for my AppleSync stuff. I worry about remembering what is in my GoogleDocs and what isn’t, and as we use GoogleDocs more and more at SLA, I see this problem getting worse, not better.
I was a committed Things user as my to-do list, but it isn’t a cloud solution, and now I’m syncing my phone and my pad and my laptop, so I think I need a cloud-based solution for that. I don’t love the Google To-Do list. RememberTheMilk? Anyone have any other suggestions?

Apps I use all the time on my iPad:
Mail / Calendar / Contacts…
iWork suite (Pages, Keynote, Numbers)
BlogPress (blog writer)
I’m going to buy FileMakerPro for the

Overall, I am thrilled with how my work flow has changed… and carrying a lighter knapsack has made my back much happier.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:New Work Process

May 01

Test Post

This is just a test post from my new iPad using BlogPress. I didn’t just buy this iPad as a "ooh shiny" flight of fancy. My goal is to stop bringing my laptop everywhere. So I bought a desktop for my desk at school, and I am setting up some combo of DropBox and MobileMe for my primary school files, and I am going to try to just work mobile with the iPad. Should be interesting.

So far, I don’t mind working on this – although this is the longest thing I have written yet. Should be fun.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Mar 21

Ten Challenges for the Network Age — Part One

Wharton Professor and long-time digital citizen Kevin Werbach (anyone else here old enough to remember his Bare Bones Guide to HTML?) posts the Ten Challenges for the Network Age on the Supernova 2008 blog. He is using these ten challenges as the framework for the Supernova conference this year, and while I am often wary of education thinking that we just have to take the questions that business is pondering and apply them to education, I’ve known Kevin through various digital communities for around fifteen years, and I greatly respect the way he considers issues. He does look at these questions from a media / communications lens, and that lens has some powerful ramifications for education as well. With that… here are some thoughts on his ten challenges:

Scarcity and Abundance
(Both are sources of value, yet they cannot coexist.)

For education, clearly this challenge is particularly relevant — This is probably a blog post or three all to itself. (O.k. — they all might be.) But I’d define this challenge in this way — How do we handle the abundance of inputs and outputs available to our students given the scarcity of two major problems in our schools: Allowed / Accepted Channels of Access (number of computers per child, bandwidth, filtering, restrictions on publishing, etc…) and time.

Choice and Coordination
(Users are in control, but don’t they need guides to avoid being overwhelmed?)

I love that it’s not just education that is struggling with this. Kevin hits on the ultimate pedagogical question of the 21st century (and probably of the 20th, too, but that’s another story.) How we help our students learn to navigate the Towel of Babel that is the internet these days is probably one of the most important things we can teach our kids. Smart, ethical use of information is everything. Kids do have more information at their fingertips than ever before in human history. More than ever before, they need teachers, mentors, guides, to teach them how to handle that. It is my contention that as educators realize that they no longer are or need to be the ultimate arbiter of all content in the classroom, what we must realize is that we now have a much more difficult and important job to do — we must teach wisdom.

Aggregation and Fragmentation
(Network effects mean that the big players get bigger, but at the same time, markets increasingly specialize and personalize.)

Harder to apply this one to education on a "tech" level, but I’ll take this one in a different direction. We spent the last century building comprehensive high schools where the big players did get bigger, such that you now have high schools of 4,000 – 5,000 students in many places in our country. (Not just urban — the "Regional HS" is a staple around here.) Over the past ten years, in our cities, we are seeing the rise of the small school movement (and probably also the charter school movement), where schools do specialize around themes or learning styles or ideas. This movement is, in my opinion, nascent and still very fragile, but it’s an interesting moment in time where school admissions are becoming market driven and schools are having to create more and more of a personalized experience for students.

This, of course, is also happening at a time where the big players have gotten bigger and bigger. "Data driven decision-making" (in quotes because I still firmly believe that much of the data schools are using is poor and therefore we’re making bad decisions) and NCLB and, sadly, technology, has meant that every test score can now be immediately published. We are seeing, in schools, technology used administratively as big brother, with more and more standardization being pushed top-down from the federal, state and district levels, and sadly, the very tools that could free education are often used to bind it. This is the paradox that we have yet to solve.

Stability and Disruption
(True innovation requires disruption, but disruption can be painful and costly, especially where investment and trust are significant.)

Again, this one hits education right on the head — perhaps more powerfully and painfully than it does business. As educators, we must be hyper-aware that we cannot be revolutionaries at the expense of our students. One of the very real — and not all that visionary — parts of our job is to prepare the kids for college. Therefore, we must be very careful with the amount of disruption we cause because we must still create institutions that are recognized by the very slow-to-change higher-ed institutions that then select our students. This is one of the reasons that we so much more innovation in the urban districts than the suburban districts. Urban districts, by and large, are not viewed as stable, there isn’t much investment and there isn’t much trust, so disruption is easier, because there’s more willingness to take risks.

We must take risks in education. We must challenge the tried-and-true way of educating students, but we must do it thoughtfully and carefully and transparently, because we don’t have the luxury of just "going out of business." Every school that makes those choices poorly affects the lives of the students who honored that school with their choice to go there. This is — as much as any other reason — we must always, always, always humble ourselves before the enormity of the task in front of us.

Behavior and Rationality
(People don’t always act according to models of rationality, especially when connected to one another, but our economic frameworks assume they do.)

People don’t always act rationally, and students are people too. Ergo, students don’t always act rationally. This is not a shock to any educator or parent. The fact that this translates to — and is perhaps augmented by — their behavior online is also not a shock. But it’s also true that if we substitute "educational" for "economic" we also have a problem that our educational frameworks assume some level of rationality as well. It often seems obvious to teachers that "If student does this, they receive that." And yet, that very simple causal relationship (think, "Do you homework, do well in class.") is often missed by kids. I’d argue that is because those simple causalities often aren’t, but again, that’s another blog post.

How this relates to the way schools adapt to the digitial world is simply this — we no longer have the luxury of assuming that we don’t have to teach about this stuff. Every school should and must teach students the idea that "We are the stories we tell." Every school should and must teach digital ethics, teach the idea of creating a deliberate and thoughtful version of ourselves online. Every school should and must challenges students to think about their behavior — on and off-line — as if the world depended on it, because, quite honestly, it does.

O.k. — this blog post is now a LOT longer than I expected it to be, and it’s 60 degrees out here on the last weekday of Spring Break. Part Two is coming… thank you to Kevin for challenging me to think and write about this. Suffice to say, if these are your ten challenges, I think Supernova 2008 will be an amazing conference. When are you running one for educators, Kevin?

Technorati Tags: kevin_werbach, Network_Age

Jul 24

First Rule of Tech…

… always have a back-up.

I followed my standard summer routine this morning… woke up, flipped open the computer, checked the morning email and then went downstairs to feed Theo, make coffee, etc… I came back upstairs to the office and tried to use the computer when it froze up. O.k. — not a big deal — happens… Restart the thing.

That’s when I first heard the grinding noise.

Yes… grinding. That’s never good.

So… a few disk util attempts later, I take it off to the local Mac hardware specialists. I figured that it’d cost a few hundred dollars for the disk repair… not want I wanted, but o.k. I was kicking myself that I skipped backups lately… there was even a night where I had plugged the laptop into the external before a trip, but I didn’t like how the laptop was sitting precariously on the desk (it’s messy), so I decided to do it later. O.k. — that’s a several hundred dollar mistake. Ow.

So I go run other errands (amazing how much there is to do when your computer is broken!) and then I get THE CALL.

They can’t recover any data. If I want my hard drive back, I can send it off to DriveSavers and for $3500, they’ll get everything off of it.


Now I really wish I had backed up more recently.

So… if you’ve emailed me at practicaltheory.org (thank GAWD scienceleadership is an IMAP server) lately, and you were expecting a reply… send it again.

And please everyone… get a backup hard drive… and use it.

My old boss taught me a long time ago, "If you are going to teach with technology, always have a backup plan."


Jun 05

Tech Support Gone Badly, Badly Wrong.

Jim Biancolo is an old teammate from my Washington, DC days. These days, he’s living up in the Northeast, working doing techie stuff, and he blogs from time to time. (Who am I kidding, he has a half-dozen online projects going on.)

Today, he posted the transcript of an online chat he had with Road Runner Tech Support. If this isn’t some Beckett-driven version of tech support hell, I don’t know what is. Here’s my favorite exchange (Chris H is Tech Support):

Chris H: Computer’s "magically" work and not work all of the time. It’s how they function.

Jim: No, they are deterministic.

But the whole thing is worth a read as Jim just is dealing with a tech support person who doesn’t understand that the customer on the other end knows something. I’ve had similar moments when I’ve dealt with some tech support folks who refused to admit that this was a shared problem solving experience, and that maybe the customer could help. (I’ve had other experiences with amazing tech support… but hey, that’s less funny.)

Anyway… enjoy.