Mostly pertinent thoughts about technology and education by school and district leaders
Author: Michael Simkins
Michael Simkins is Consulting Director of TICAL — the Technology Information Center for Administrative Leadership. Prior to that he was director of the Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project and also served as COO of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network. He was an elementary schoolteacher for 17 years and an elementary principal for 9 years. He grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, when it was still a “sleepy beach town.”
Most of us are familiar with Abraham Maslow’s classic Hierarchy of Needs. According to his theory, we first need to satisfy lower level needs before we can eventually hope to reach the apex of existence, self-actualization. Of course, this makes a lot of sense. For example, we still believe that students’ basic needs must be met, such as getting enough sleep and having a decent breakfast before coming to school, if they are going to be able to concentrate on learning once they arrive.
This summer, I was studying up on digital citizenship for my Leading Edge Certification for the Administrator course, and some of us got into a discussion on how best to introduce the various elements of digital citizenship into the curriculum. For some reason, Maslow’s Hierarchy came to mind. I decided to play around with how the skills and “habits” of digital citizenship might fit into the hierarchy. Here’s what I came up with:
No, it’s not rocket science, it’s probably flawed, but it was a fun intellectual exercise. Plus it gave me a chance to make my first “Google drawing!” Could not, however, figure out how to color my levels as J. Finkelstein did his, but then he was using something called Inkscape. I checked that out and it looked like it would require a much longer learning curve. There’s always a trade off, yes?
That was the question my fifth-grade students asked after the second of two school assemblies we attended in close succession. The first was about earthquake preparedness and the speaker told the kids to sleep with their bedroom doors open. In the second, the fire marshal admonished everyone to sleep with their bedroom doors closed. Good grief! What’s a ten-year-old to do?
I was reminded of that dilemma recently when, on the same day, I read two interesting articles, one entitled “6 Shifts in Education Driven by Technology” and the other, “Instead of Getting Ready for the Tech Revolution, Schools Are Scaling Back.”
The first article summarized the latest Horizon Report, which predicts that within the next two years, technology will drive us all to “rethink the role of the teacher.” Teachers will be expected to be adept at all sorts of technology, adapt it to instructional uses, and use technology to extend learning “beyond the traditional school day.”
The second, on the other hand, proclaims that “The promise of digital education is still out of reach for most American students.” Why? School Internet connections are too slow. Even with access, kids are still sharing devices, the devices they share are old, and the bulk of new spending on technology is going into efforts to get ready for the new Common Core assessments.
My hunch? For years we’ve known, “What gets tested gets taught.” Now, we have a rhyming corollary: What the test needs gets bought.
The upside? We really don’t have to test all the time, so I’m betting teachers will leverage any technology that may have been purchased primarily to get ready for Smarter Balanced or PARCC and make it serve a higher educational purpose.
We educators talk a lot about personalization. My dear friend Barbara Bray is a tireless advocate for personalizing learning environments. Goodness knows we’re all very busy building and maintaining our personal learning networks. In 1996, when I left my job as a principal to direct a federal technology project, a reporter interviewing me for the local newspaper asked me what I thought the value of technology was for education; I answered, “It’s going to enable us to personalize learning.”
As with many good things, though, there are malignant forms of personalization—insidious strains that surreptitiously undermine our ability to freely learn what we want to learn. Barbara calls out “adaptive learning systems” as one example. “The filter bubble,” as described by Eli Pariser, is another. A couple months ago I read his book of the same name. Until then, I’d thought I was a pretty savvy guy about all things Internet, but Eli’s book poked a hole in my own naiveté bubble.
I consider myself to be a pretty damn good researcher. Even before the Internet, I could walk into a library, pull out the card catalog or the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, and usually find out what I wanted to know. When the Internet came along, I mastered Boolean expressions and entered researchers’ paradise. The only information I had trouble finding was information that hadn’t yet be digitized.
Then “smart” searching came along. At first, this seemed great. Start typing a couple words in the search box and voilà! Google or Bing or whatever tool you’re using just “knows” what you’re looking for. Over time, though, I found myself having trouble finding what I wanted. I’d change my search terms all kinds of ways and I’d still get the same off-base results. It’s like trying to explain something to someone who just doesn’t have the knowledge or context to “get it.” Like Big Brother or Jim Anderson, Algorithm knows best. Ask for whatever you will, Knowledge Graph decides what you really need. Not good. In fact, creepy.
Watch this TED Talk. Eli explains it better than I.
Yesterday, I received an email from an aspiring administrator with the subject line “Education technology guidance.” He wrote that as the “closest thing my school currently has to an Education Technologist,” he’s been tasked with writing a grant proposal for funding to help his school implement a blended learning environment. He described his dilemma as follows:
As part of the application, I am being asked to forecast the annual costs for digital content licenses, learning management systems, and data management systems. I am unsure as to whether I understand the difference between all three, never mind how to estimate a cost. As I understand it, the digital content license would be for programs like Aleks’ math program. A learning management system would be something like Edmodo or Moodle, where a teacher could deliver other content and communicate with students. I am unclear as to what a data management system would be. Could you please help clarify these three terms or guide me in the right direction. Examples of each would help.
Bless his heart. He’s been handed a task with the expectation, apparently, that he’ll do it alone when, in fact, it should be a team effort informed by thoughtful discussion with all stakeholders. Of course, grant proposals are rarely developed methodically. Typically, one of two things happens. Some money is dangled in front of us and we go after it, regardless of how it fits our strategic plan; or, we find money in the offing that actually matches our plan but the window for submitting a proposal is so short we have to slap something together in a huge rush and get it out the door.
Well, we have to work in the real world and this fellow wanted guidance now, so here is what I wrote.
You’re on the right track. Content licenses are any fees you pay to make online content available to teachers and students (e.g. NBC Learn, Discovery Education, ProQuest K-12). Moodle is one example of a learning management system; Blackboard is another. A data management system would be something you use to collect, house and analyze information such as student demographics, tests scores, e-portfolios, etc. (e.g. TestingWerks). Some, like SchoolNet or ObaWorld, are hybrids and combine features.
Before you can forecast costs, you need to determine what tools you need and what you are going to use them for. What does your school already have? How does it keep track of student information? What curricular materials do you use already and will still use in this new program? How does the school track student data now? Do you need a different system because of this program or will the one in use serve the purpose? Basically, you can’t work on a budget until you know what you want to do and what you’ll need to do it.
Survey Finds Rising Job Frustration Among Principals
These two headlines, both from Education Week, crossed my desk today. It was a poignant and instructive juxtaposition. I spent years studying (and experiencing) teacher burnout. I found that lack of control (perceived, anyway) was closely associated with burnout. The current research cited lack or control as a key factor in principal frustration.
After 15 years as a teacher, I became a principal. “Wow,” I thought, “now I’ve got the power to make things happen.”
No and yes. I found that despite my new, elevated position, I had far less power than I thought I would have. Principal’s can dictate, surely; that doesn’t mean anyone has to abide by the dictates. A principal’s real power comes from sharing it, from persuasion, from setting an example, from inspiring people.
It doesn’t surprise me that today’s principals are feeling frustrated; given the context in which they work, why wouldn’t they be?
Assuming that it make sense to run education as though it were a business—a debatable assumption—then of course we need a metric for the bottom line. Test scores alone, however, are a poor surrogate for net profit.