There are a lot of differences between education and businesses. There are also a lot of similarities. Too often educators don’t think about schools using cost-benefit analysis. If they did, especially when it came to technology purchases, schools would be in much better shape. For example, should a school purchase a computer lab for teachers to use with their classes during the day? It’s easier to gauge the cost–most educational leaders usually just look at the dollar amount. They don’t take into consideration installation, maintenance, upgrade and replacement costs. This doesn’t include software costs either. These factors all need to be taken into account when making hardware purchases. What’s the benefit of the lab? What about the benefit of installing two labs? It’s difficult to quantify benefits often in education but experienced educators can make some fairly accurate predictions. Some educators just buy technology hoping teachers and students will use it. The reality is that technology needs to fit the vision and purpose of the school. Technology for technology’s sake is a waste.
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I’m not making this up. One of the guest speakers at the iNACOL conferencea few years back told a packed audience this. He said, “If it’s not in Google, it doesn’t exist.” Seriously, I’m not making this up. Let me tell you a little more. The conference was about all about online learning. The guest speaker was a recent high school graduate who had done all of his schooling online. He was there to give us his perspective on the world of online education. Much of what he had to say was very helpful to us as we were in the planning stages of creating our own online school in my district. The the idea that everything of value is catalogue by Google was laughable. Apparently this kid had never been to a bookstore. This was before GoogleBooks deal. Just for fun, I Googled the quote, “If it’s not in Google, it doesn’t exist.” Guess what? 27,100 results! There are a LOT of people who apparently feel this way. Somewhere along the way in the education of these individuals, they missed the part where knowledge CAN and DOES EXIST outside of Google.
I just attended the FETC 2009 Virtual Conference for educational technology. The keynote speaker Calvin Baker from Vail, Arizona talked about how his district is using technology to promote teacher creativity. At first I thought it would be a talk about how technology can help teachers create “new media” to “wow” their students out of their stereotypical slumber. As you can tell, I dislike the notion that I need to use technology to entertain my students. Luckily, I was completely wrong. This was a great presentation because what he said made a lot of sense. Here are some poignant highlights.
Districts need to get new technology into the hands of the teachers first. If you do, then they learn how to use it and incorporate it into the classroom. Bravo! Another thing Calvin talked about was that there needs to be accountability and structure when using new technology. It’s not a free-for-all. Many promoters of new technology want to throw any and everything against the wall to see what sticks. That’s irresponsible in education. Calvin explained a web tool they developed called “Beyond Textbooks.” It’s basically a way to connect teachers together in meaningful ways–in departments, within schools, across the district and even across the state. Too much of teaching is a solitary activity–to the detriment of the profession and to students. This tool includes shared calendars so a teacher can see what other teachers are doing and when. I like this type of sharing and accountability. An open learning environment benefits all. Too many teachers don’t do what they need to do and no one ever knows about it. A shared calendar is a step in the right direction.
Another aspect of Beyond Textbooks is the sharing of lesson plans. A colleague and I have been talking about this for years. There’s no reason a new teacher should have to spend years developing solid lessons when there are great lessons already available: they are in the filling cabinets of most veteran teachers. What Beyond Textbooks does it help pool all of the great lessons from across the district and make them available for all to use. My district has been working towards something like this but it’s a huge undertaking and we haven’t been able to get it off the ground. Because the lessons are seen and used by other professionals, the quality of the products is very high. When there is an audience, people tend to perform better. Plus it gives teachers the opportunity for others to see what great stuff they’ve created. OpenEducation.org and THE Journal wrote about this initiative. Open up education–what a great idea!
There is a forum attached to each teaching resource so that teachers can connect to other teachers in a meaningful and timely way. Too many websites offer to “connect teachers” but they don’t have any real meaning. As a result, teachers join social networks and then never visit them again. The Beyond Textbook repository is key to the daily life of teachers: specific lessons tied to their specific state standards in their district. The forums allow teachers to comment and give feedback on the lessons thus improving the lessons. This technology can also give teachers the intrinsic rewards that we all crave.
Teachers love to create and share the things that improve instruction. That’s why a great many teachers are in this business. Technology like Beyond Textbooks can help these creative individuals have even greater impact. I wish my state had something like this.
Every teacher has heard this question from students at one time or another. “When am I ever going to need this?” they ask. Sometimes teachers gloss over these questions, other times they retort with the empty response of “I had to learn it so you should too.” This type of question from students isn’t one that can be passed off flippantly. It’s exactly the type of question that good teaching fosters. If we as teachers don’t have a clear answer to it, then what’s the purpose of what we do?
Some educators have misguided answers to this question. “You will use math if you become a banker,” they say. “Let’s bring in a banker and have him/her talk to you about how they use math.” Seriously? If teachers need to bring a banker in to convince students that math is important then they clearly don’t understand the question. And they don’t understand banking either! Students aren’t convinced by pat answers or vague references to professionals “out there.” They need real answers that they can use each day in the classroom.
Early in my teaching career, I learned how important purpose is to the classroom. Since then, I have begun each semester with this question: “when will you ever need this?” It’s one of the first things I ask them. As they think about it, I even chide them with comments like “Unless you are ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,’ you will never need to know about what we are going to study.” Or, “I’m pretty sure you will never be at the water cooler at your future job and say to a coworker, ‘What about those crazy Minoans.'” I press them to probe deep into the question why. You’d be surprised how many different answers they come up with–and they are real answers. In our brainstorming sessions, students come up with no less than 15 solid reasons they need to take my class. I don’t teach anything particularly unique or useful. They are just regular social studies classes: Ancient Civilizations, World Geography, Psychology, Government, Colorado History, etc. As the classroom conversation progresses, we even throw in math and science to the mix. Sure, students understand that they aren’t going to love every subject. But they do have good reasons for why they are studying them. They know that they know that they need to learn about the world and that everything in their studies doesn’t have to have applicable to their life today. Of course good teachers know how to connect their content to everyday life but you can’t always do that.
Surprisingly, there is one answer that students rarely think of. To me it seems to me to be the crux of the reason why students need to be educated: it strengthens their brain. We know from years of neuroscience research how young brains develop and grow. We know how important the environment (i.e. education) is on the outcome of the person. Sad but true, I realize that very few people are going to need to know about the Assyrians or how to use the quadratic equation in their future careers. However, everyone is going to use their brain. So, when are students ever going to use what they learn in class? Every day! A good coach knows that physical exercise like push-ups helps improve his/her athletes’ performance. No one likes them but they all know it’s not about the push-up–it’s about the end goal: a strong body. Education helps strengthen the mind.
Purpose is a powerful thing. Even if students don’t ask it aloud, they are wondering about the purpose of education in their busy brains. “When am I ever going to need this?” There are simple and valid answers to this question. Our job as educators is to help them find that purpose.
With the creation of the internet, the amount of information available to people is overwhelming. The sheer volume of stuff out there is staggering. There have been lots of estimates of how much information is accessible via the internet but as it grows, the numbers continue to increase–exponentially! People have even calculated how much the internet weighs! So, this must be a problem for educators. What should they teach now that there is so much new information out there?
But is this really a new problem? If you’ve ever been to a large library, you’ve noticed that clearly there is more information in all of the books than the average person can consume in a lifetime. The problem of information explosion in not new. What is *relatively* new is the technology allowing us to access. It seems like the information explosion is a new problem but it’s not.
Educational leaders and those who talk about school are panicked about this “information explosion.” I’ve been to more than a few in-services and lectures where speakers astound us with their calculations of how much information is “out there.” Then they tell us that it’s changing everything. What they forget is that too much information has always been “out there.” Since the invention of the printing press, there has been too much information for one person to absorb. So the task of a good educator is the same as it’s always been: to help students make sense of the world. The tools that help us do that have evolved and changed but that’s always going to happen. Nothing stays the same so we adapt. Our core job is and must continue to be to help students understand the world and give them the tools to continue understanding it. The students won’t suddenly begin to teach themselves with the Internet. We can’t just turn students loose on the Internet so they can “find” the information themselves. Knowledge without the guidance of a skilled teacher is chaos.
With the explosion of Web 2.0 technologies, one of the things I hear over and over is: “And it’s free!” As educators and technology leaders, we need to be very aware of what is free and what isn’t. Since the beginning, there has been a culture of sharing on the Internet. This sharing includes the good and bad. But there has also been the need to pay the bills. Websites aren’t free. Google doesn’t exist as a community service. Profit is what keeps websites and software companies running. So when a website says that it’s free, one must keep in mind where the money is coming from. Some web 2.0 start-ups are hoping to gain a solid base of users and then get purchased by a larger company. There are lots of examples of this. Other websites give away their product for free for a period of time and then realize that they have to start charging. Smart Internet users know that there’s always that possibility. Other websites offer their services for free but then eventually shut down. How many sites have the last entry on the page: “sorry we couldn’t afford to keep this service/website running”?
Don’t get me wrong. I like free. But I also understand economic reality. When educators begin to rely on “free Internet services,” they need to keep in mind the eventual costs. These might include the cost to pay for the “free” service sooner or later. Or they have the cost of discontinuing the service–this is the cost of lost time and energy investing in integrating the “free” technology into various school programs. There are also costs of moving from one “free” technology solution to another. That’s lots of time and energy wasted–that’s a huge cost. Technology leaders also need to consider the costs of advertisements. I’ve seen school buses plastered with ads for the local emergency clinic. These ads are typically aimed at adults. Schools need to be very careful when they decide to force advertisements on their students. I’ve seen school sponsored sites that have ads for a variety of products–some completely inappropriate for schools. I don’t want my kids looking at ads when they are using school sites.
Another cost that most don’t consider but I think is important is the cost of spreading out technology over too many websites/web services. Everyone wants to give their base product away for free but you have to use their site. That means that in order to take advantage of cool and free Web 2.0 technologies, students and teachers may have to log into and use three to four different sites. That’s 3-4 additional logins in addition to the ones associated with school logins. That’s why Google is scrambling to combine as many things into one login as possible. And we all know Google’s revenue stream is from advertisements.
Is there such a thing as a free lunch? Not in the internet world. There is always a cost somewhere. Educational technology leaders need to keep these costs in mind when they make decisions.
The driving force behind technology use at any organization is often hidden. Sure, technology happens but when it does, it’s difficult to know exactly how or why. Schools are no different than other organizations. Lots of people talk about what technology–what they want, what would be nice to have, how much time they’d save, etc. But many times, no one really knows how or why technology get purchased and integrated–or in most cases not.
Educational leaders need to open this process up. Examine the structure of the technology support team and how they relate to the end users. Educators need to ask a lot of questions. How is the tech support staff structured? What are their mandates and goals? How does the tech support staff respond to end-user needs? How do end-users utilize the services of the tech support staff? Who is leading the way in terms of technology adoption and integration? Does it come from the end-users? or the tech support staff? or from the educational leaders? What drives technology? Are the software folks talking to the hardware folks so that everyone has a shared vision?
What I’m saying is that there are a lot of disconnects. Many useful technologies don’t get adopted because there isn’t someone with foresight and vision in charge. Sometimes technologies don’t get implemented because no one is looking at the process. Other times technology gets purchased and it sits because there isn’t any follow through.
Without a clear vision for technology, the tech support staff can get trapped in a “fighting fires” mentally. They wait until something breaks and then fix it. Crisis management isn’t a bad thing–unless this is the way an organization always functions. It’s no way to run a top-performing school. There are so many great things that can be accomplished with insight and planning.
So take a look at YOUR school and ask yourself what’s driving technology integration. It needs to be committed individuals with vision, planning and follow through.