Why Technology

May 8, 2009

Something has been happening lately in education, and the implications are a bit unsettling.  People are beginning to ask a cogent question, but I fear it’s being framed for the wrong reason.  I’m hearing more and more important decision makers asking, “Why are we using technology?”

-Ben Grey

Instructional Technology Coordinator and Technology & Learning Contributor Ben Grey shared a thought provoking column today anchored on the question, Why Technology?”.  The entirety of his post can be found HERE.

This is a great question, and my extended respnse in the comments section prompted me to duplicate my reply below.  How would YOU answer the question?

Schools ARE asking this question, and many times for a good reason. In a well-functioning learning environment, every support resource, including technology, should justify its status on a regular basis. Every resource should help advance the mission and goals of the district, and many school districts need to confess a disconnect in the past 10-20 years between the objectives in the classroom and the objectives in the server room. A self-serving technology program is destructive to learning, and should be held accountable.

A generally good indicator of such dysfunction is when principals, teachers, and students (as a majority interest) don’t view technology as indispensable to learning. As learning technology practitioners and leaders the 80/20 rule should apply, with the lion share of our efforts directed toward helping teachers and students effectively use technology to enhance learning. In every school I’ve visited or worked with, that degree of focus and priority bears the fruit of a pedagogical transformation in which teachers become guides, students become learners, and technology becomes essential (and almost invisible).

Unfortunately this is far too rare, and most districts’ time, energy, and money spent on technology initiatives yield fragmented implementations due to mis-aligned interests pulling in separate directions: Administrators and board members want measurable results on standardized tests, technology staffers want security and ease of management, and teachers want technology to get the hell out of the way so they can do something meaningful. Often, there is no apparent curricular driver for the technology to be found. We get caught up in debate over content filtering, 1:1 programs, SMART Boards versus Promethean, Mac versus PC, and management of student data, but forget to ask what we need to facilitate learning. When decision-makers see millions of dollars spent on the purchase and support of rooms full of equipment that do nothing to catalyze progress, the question, “Why technology?” is quite fair game.

My response to this question would consist of a few reciprocating questions of my own: Is it a core value of our school district to prepare students for the world the are about to enter? What does that world look like? Is it practical to expect students to acquire the skills and competencies they’ll need to succeed (either in college or in the workforce) without also providing them access to the very interface of this flattened world we live in?

The (hopefully) obvious answers should lead us to apologetically borrowed terminology from the current White House Administration. Education technology is “too important to fail” because technology itself has become too integral to the way the rest of the world functions. We just have to make sure the resource needs of learning direct technology, and prioritize effort that leads to meaningful change.

tonywagnerjpg1Last night, Dr. Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap and Change Leadership, and Co-Director of Harvard University’s Change Leadership  Group at the Graduate School of Education, was the featured guest at a community discussion on 21st century skills in education.  The event was hosted by Holland Hall (a private, parochial school) in partnership with Tulsa Public Schools.  Wagner discussed many of the elements in his books, and entertained questions and discussion form the audience.  I apologize in advance for the limited quality of the this recording, but it should be discernible enough after some scrubbing in Garage Band.  I was prepared to use Qik and Cover It Live, but a lack of adequate Internet access changed those plans.  I’ll try to include my thoughts on the event when I get time later.

Click below for the MP3 audio

Tony Wagner Presentation

to-scale-nell-sm_v244132763_jpgAmazon announced this morning a new model of their eBook reader, the Kindle DX.  It’s main differentiating features from the currently shipping model include a larger size screen (9.7 in) and resolution (1200 x 824), as well as a built-in PDF reader, more memory, and an auto-rotating screen.  Amazon also announced agreements with several textbook companies to port books to the device–a clear aim at an education market hungry for innovative ways to deliver learning.  But while this is an intriguing device as an (expensive) eBook, newspaper, and magazine reader, it’s still off-the-mark as a solution for students.

First, let me extol its virtues.  The  interface, large screen, and awesome battery life (4 days) make it a very “user-friendly” device.  Amazon has also done a nice job developing WhisperSync, the service that conveniently and reliably delivers content wirelessly to the Kindle, as long as you have Sprint data coverage. It’s thin profile and slight weight let it slide easily into a purse or backpack.

Okay, I was nice for four sentences.  Let the carnage ensue:

The Kindle is designed to read books, newspapers, and magazines, and do that well at a per unit cost of nearly $500. That’s all fine by me until Amazon and textbook publishers begin to position it as a tool for education. Then, my gloves come off.  It is a closed, proprietary device.  This means you better look at the list of technical specifications and features and be satisfied, because that’s all it will do.  Software developers won’t be allowed to come up with so much as a rudimentary word processor or messaging application.  It has a basic web browser that is less functional than Opera on my Nintendo Wii, so forget any meaningful use of the Internet.  A PDF reader will let you look at your own documents, but getting them on the device is so much more difficult than it needs to be, and predictably, there is no way to edit them.  A gray-scale screen is optimized for reading text, but poorly-suited for any level of graphics or animation.

The education market desperately needs a usable, affordable solution in this vein, but such a device needs to be so much more.  The fundamental problem with the Kindle is that it’s a 2009 model tool designed for an 18th century model of education.  It delivers content  one-way, with almost no ability to create, collaborate, or access information and media beyond what is specifically adapted for the device. For $500, a nice  netbook delivers the capability to do EVERYTHING the Kindle DX does, as well as:

  • Create, edit, and share all manner of content including text, audio, video and graphic art
  • Collaborate and communicate via messaging applications, voice and video chat, e-mail, and shared online workspaces
  • Use modern Internet browsers and tools to effectively research, annotate, and validate information
  • Print
  • Present something in color

We need digital tools that allow for a constructivist approach to learning, not another format for delivery of static information.  So, Amazon, I lend best wishes for the Kindle DX as an eBook reader for affluent consumers of books and news.  Just don’t go touting it as a solution for the classroom.

Click Here

This will be dependent on bandwidth availability.  If the CoverItLive/Qik broadcast fails, I’ll be Twittering updates @jsw_edtech

So I Bought A Netbook

April 17, 2009

HP Mini 1033cl

HP Mini 1033cl

…but it’s not for me.

My wife, Jennifer, is a high school (and part time college) English teacher in a school district that frankly could do a much better job prioritizing integration of technology into the learning process. She now, like the other high school teachers, has one desktop PC in her classroom with a projector, but that’s frankly not enough.

For teachers to really begin to morph their classrooms into 21st century learning environments, adopting relevant and engaging methodologies using the tools of digital natives, they need to have anytime, anywhere access to technology. For Jennifer, portability is important since she teaches and works on lesson planning several times a day, from several different locations.

I’ve closely watched the emergence of the netbook form factor for the past year or so, intrigued by the possibilities for affordable 1:1 computing in public schools. In my family Macintosh is the platform of choice, and we’re waiting as patiently as we can for Apple to hopefully introduce a netbook or tablet of their own. In the meantime, existing netbook prices continue to creep downward while performance and functionality inches forward. So with no announcement from Apple in sight, I decided to go ahead and bite when I received a Twitter message this week that Buy.com was offering factory reconditioned HP Mini 1033cl netbooks for $279.99 with free shipping.

While not the top of the line in this form factor, the Mini 1033 sports a 10″ screen, 1.6 Ghz Atom N270 processor, 60 GB hard drive, 1 GB RAM, and Windows XP (although I may try my hand at installing Mac OS X Leopard like this). With a keyboard regarded as one of the best among netbooks, this is quite the buy for less than $300.

Starting Monday evening, for less than the cost of a month’s groceries, my wife will have purse-sized computer capable of doing everything she needs, and maybe she can go from carrying several flash drives to one. I’m also netbook shopping for my middle school daughter so I’m most curious how our first foray into the ultra-portable market plays out, while holding my breath for an Apple solution sooner rather than later.

Let’s just get this out on the table:  The view I take in this post is entirely my own, does not necessarily reflect that of my employer or any other professional affiliation, and may be quite unpopular among many people I know and respect.

I’m not interested in popularity.

Several years ago, the Oklahoma state legislature allowed the formation charter schools. Designed in part to create models for successful reform, they had the (perhaps) unintended consequence of creating an unfair competitive environment in public education. Charter schools in Oklahoma are allowed to operate free of the constraints of many of the myriad unfunded mandates state lawmakers have handed down over the years. Public schools are required to comply with a dizzying array of rules, including things like mandatory vision screening for elementary age students. While most are laudable notions, they have associated costs in terms of money, time, and administrative oversight. It adds up to an incredible amount of resource allocation which, even when well-intentioned, often sidetracks the ultimate mission of learning and handicap opportunities for meaningful innovation.

Senate Bill 834, authored by Sen. John Ford (R-Bartlesville) and Rep. Tad Jones (R-Claremore) allows local school boards to choose to ignore many of those unfunded state mandates when they don’t make sense for the local district. It does not direct or require local school boards to do anything except continue to comply with certain, existing state requirements related to school board member continuing education, employee background checks, personnel evaluations, graduation requirements, and teacher certification. And of course, there are still standards districts must meet regarding accreditation for the State Department of Education and organizations like the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. If Senate Bill 834 were signed into law as written and amended today, this is what districts would be required by law to change:

1. Nothing
2. Nothing
3. Nothing

Does it mean that a local district COULD elect to change its collective bargaining process or salary scale? It does, but consider that it also puts school districts in a position to now compete for the best teaching talent. For example, there has historically been little or no incentive for local boards to pay teachers more than the minimum salary requirements because if they didn’t, they knew nobody else would either. And because administrators are so strapped by state mandates, there has been insufficient flexibility in the budgeting process to allow it. Would Bartlesville’s (the district where my wife teaches) school board, in its stated quest to be a great school district, choose to create a working environment that attracts the best teachers in the state through working conditions, compensation, and curricular freedom; or create an adversarial environment that causes teachers to leave in favor of better jobs in districts that choose to compete for the best? Which would local citizens, parents, and business leaders demand (and enforce through board elections)? Hint: Think Texas versus Oklahoma on an intra-state level.

But then, why should we create so much potential for disparity in the quality of education by allowing some school districts to be “better” than others? Such an argument unfortunately assumes that local school boards and administrators aren’t first and fundamentally interested in creating the best possible learning environment. I don’t believe that is the case with most school board members (unpaid volunteers) and administrators. I do believe that there are incompetent, ill-intentioned, and malfeasant school board members and administrators out there, and that they need to go away mercilessly. A fair, competitive playing field is prerequisite for the elimination of these bad actors. By allowing local school districts more local control Senate Bill 834 strips the unfair advantages charter schools have over traditional public schools and creates new opportunities for meaningful school improvement through healthy competition.

Essential Questions

February 17, 2009

Last week at the Oklahoma Technology Association’s 2009 Learning Technology Conference, I presented a session titled, “Social Networking and the Learning Process.”  What was originally intended to be a showcase of how my wife and another literature teacher at Bartlesville High School use social media tools to engage students morphed into an altogether different format when my two teachers were told by their school that there wasn’t money for them to attend and present at a state technology conference (I’ll share my dismay and disgust another time).  

Instead, I spent twenty minutes or so establishing a sort of “baseline” for what the terms social networking, social media, and Web 2.0 meant, and talked about how integrated and relevant these are to the lives to today’s students.  Then it got cool…

As I froze Keynote on my laptop (and if you do much presenting, Keynote will change your life–get a Mac and use Keynote!) we began a roundtable discussion of the advantages and challenges of using social media and their related “means of access” in the classroom. My view from the front of the room was spectacular!   Half the room sat on the edge of their seats, many earnestly contributing to the discussion.  The other half sat grim-faced, many with arms folded and brimming with dissent.  It didn’t take long for the discussion to get around to issues of policy: Content filtering, cell phones in the classroom, etc.  

A perfect shift, because here’s what I’ve come to understand more clearly in recent months…

1.  There are great discussions happening at conferences, board meetings, PLC team meetings, PTA groups, etc. regarding how to engage students “where they are” using the “native tools of digital natives.”  Great minds with great ideas, such as Will Richardson, Wesley Fryer, and Dawn Danker, who gave compelling cases at the same OTA conference, do a much better job than I can.  

2.  Far too often, and I can’t emphasize this enough, the steel will of technology directors or network administrators who don’t understand their role in the mission of a school district, overrides the needs of learners and facilitators.  Fear, uncertainty, and doubt drive irresponsible mindsets that default to “block and deny” in the interest of protecting the precious network and those using it. This invariably results in vast sums of money spent building a technology infrastructure that serves its own interests ahead of the central mission of its existence, facilitating learning. 

Thusly, I have a keen interest in the attitudes and logic that form this sort of dangerous perspective.  How do we as technology directors and school leaders get so disconnected from our core purpose?  I hazard that much of the problem relates to what we allow to filter or distort our view.  Eric Hileman, the Instructional Technology Director at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, uses the phrase, “the lens through which you look at it,” which appeals to me as a photographer.  While I don’t have all the answers, and can’t account for all of those lenses, I am certain of this:

We won’t have the answers we’re looking for until we start asking the right questions, and that’s what excited me about the discussion in Ballroom B that Wednesday afternoon in Oklahoma City.  One after another, teachers, administrators, and even tech directors began asking meaningful questions–questions that moved issues of education technology policy back into the realm of learning where they belong.  

Instead of asking, “Why are all of these sites blocked by our district’s content filter?” …we asked, “How can we capture back the teaching moment, and help students understand how to be effective and responsible participants in cybersphere?”

Instead of, “Why can’t we use cell phones in the classroom?” …we asked, “How can we include the use of mobile Internet access tools in a way that makes learning more authentic, relevant, and productive while teaching students how to use them responsibly and safely?”


What other essential questions should we be asking as we seek to transform schools into effective 21st century learning environments?


“Once you have learned how to ask relevant and appropriate questions, you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.”

Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner
Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Another great iPhone app was released today, which is causing me to move my fledgling blog from Blogger to WordPress.

WordPress for iPhone is now available as a free download from the iTunes and iPhone App Stores, and works with any WordPress 5.21 or higher installation, including blogs hosted at WordPress.com and installations on your own servers.

In typical iPhone app fashion, it installed without issue in seconds (while I walked to lunch with some friends from work). The interface is clean, quick, and very intuitive; and it supports:

Offline editing
Local drafts
Multiple blogs
Keyword tagging
A great built-in preview function
Uploading photos directly from your camera or photo library

I was enamored with the TypePad app released at the launch of the iPhone app store, but WordPress has the distinct advantage of offering FREE blogging. Maybe Google will release an iPhone app for Blogger soon, but with the ease of converting and importing my blog into WordPress, I found no compelling reason to wait.

Thusly, you may now find Hyper Text at: https://jswphoto.wordpress.com

I may even find a domain name soon to clean that up a bit.


iPhone App Wish List

July 15, 2008

As of today over 800 apps are available at Apple iTunes App Store.  It’s been fun browsing them, but I’ve only installed the following:

Box Office
eBay Mobile
Pandora Radio
Super Monkey Ball
Maybe I’m too picky, or maybe I’m just to paranoid junking up my beautiful iPhone.  Interestingly, I have also pared down my collection of “Web Apps” since the release of the 2.0 firmware, so my total collection of home screen icons is down to less than two screens.
At any rate, I have started to compile a wish list of apps I’d love to see–the sooner the better.
This app already exists for “jailbroken” iPhones, so it’s just a matter of time.  In fact, I heard the developer of this app interviewed in an Internet webcast last Thursday night and he indicated he’s already submitted it to Apple for review.  The ability to update my Netflix queue on the go will be nice.  Very nice.
MMS Client
Yes, I know I can just e-mail photos to any phone recipient. And, yes, I’m aware that this will likely require some cooperation with AT&T to implement.  As far as I’m concerned AT&T can just write it themselves, as long as I don’t have to deal with the horrendous kludge of a process we have today for handling an inbound MMS message.  For the love of Han Solo, why do we have to invoke Safari and enter a message ID and password?  How hard can it be to fix this?
I’ll admit this is the neanderthal sports (college football) nut in me revealing itself.  There it is.  But I really want this.  ESPN Mobile works fine for WindowsMobile devices, but they could do SO MUCH MORE on the iPhone.  I envision something like a marriage of SportsTap and MLB at Bat.  I’d pay for this one.
My family orders pizza at least once a week.  It’s a staple.  I’d love to see an iPhone app that lets me order pizza from my choice of Pizza Hut, Dominos, Papa Johns, Mazzios (a local fave), etc.  It should be able to store my customer information, remember my last and favorite orders, and check the status of my order/delivery.  In reality, an incarnation of this will likely be distributed on a per company basis.  I can live with that.
MYOB or QuickBooks
I don’t want the whole accounting suite, just a secure, wireless dashboard view of my business essentials.  I’d like to see my current accounts receivables, payables, account balances, and some cashflow and expense charts.
Depth of Field
This is for my photography needs.  I want a quick calculator for photographic depth of field/focal plane given my aperture and distance from subject.  Similar calculators have existed for Palm and WindowsMobile for several years.  This one should be easy.
Arvest/Home National Bank Online Banking
Simply, I want MY banks to have the exact same functionality as the Bank of America app.  I’m baffled that Arvest recently released and seems to be quite proud of a secure, mobile banking app that works with AT&T Wireless and Verizon and several phones, but not the iPhone.  Hey, Arvest, ever heard of the iPhone?  They’ve sold 7 million of them in the last year.  One million in the last three days.  
This would be an iPhone port of the existing app for Mac and Windows desktops.  It’s a really sweet program that lets you graphically overlay map, radar, and statistical weather data in any custom form you want.  In Oklahoma, it’s especially cool as it allows you to access MesoNet data for really granular analysis.
Are there any apps you’d like to see?  

I’m into my third day using the newly released and much-anticipated 2.0 firmware revision to the iPhone software. (I updated my existing iPhone early using an unsupported download from Apple.com that circulated the Internet on Thursday.  More that and its significance later.)  I started with a blog post to cover new features and hits across the whole spectrum, but quickly realized I was getting long-winded so I decided to divide this into several posts.  I’ll share my quick first impressions and some feature hints, many of which you WON’T find on other blogs and tech review sites:

The App Store works beautifully and efficiently, and is a model application for other iPhone developers.  You can install applications ranging in price from FREE to over $60 using the icon on your iPhone or the iTunes Music Store on you computer.  Discovering and installing apps right from your iPhone is so easy and quick that there’s really almost no reason to use iTunes.  

What others haven’t yet told you:
  • If you have iTunes setup to sync your apps, you may have trouble making them go away if you want to uninstall.  This is because if you delete (uninstall) an app from the iPhone, iTunes will reinstall it next time you sync.  Fix this by going to the Applications icon in the left pane of iTunes, selecting the icon of the app, and deleting it from iTunes also.
  • You can share purchased apps between iPhones if they use the same iTunes account.  My wife and I have our laptop and iPhones setup to use the same iTunes account, which already allows us to share music while paying only once.  Apps work the same way.  Just purchase the app on one of the iPhones or computers and install it.  Because Apple allows you to re-download apps and their updates for free, you simply install the same app from the other iPhone (or its sync computer).  A polite message will tell you that you’ve already purchased the app, and that clicking okay will install it again.  This means Super Monkey Ball on two phones for the price of one.  WOOT!  You can’t go crazy, though.  Remember that you can only authorize an iTunes account on five computers at a time and your iPod or iPhone gets its download authority from the computer it syncs with.  So this is really only useful for a small family like mine.
  • Messaging-type apps are somewhat handicapped until September.  Apps such as Twitterriffic and AIM work really well, but they don’t run at all in the background.  This is by design, as Apple has insisted from the beginning that the iPhone remain a stable platform.  One of the most bulletproof ways of ensuring this is to disallow third party apps from running at the same time and allowing them to be “minimized” like on a desktop computer.  Apple engineers are not being mean, they just want to be sure that your iPhone doesn’t gag trying to field a phone call because Super Monkey Ball, Facebook, MySpace, Texas Hold ‘Em, and WeatherBug are all competing for attention in the background.  The impact on you today is that if you exit an app such as AIM to check your e-mail, AIM actually quits.  You won’t get “buzzed” if someone sends you another instant message whilst you’re reading that Viagra spam.  The GOOD NEWS is that Apple will release an update targeted for September that will resolve some of this.  According to Apple, one centralized background notification service will run on the iPhone at all times, and can be used by any program that needs it.  This will work much like the SMS and Mail apps today, in that you’ll be notified by badges (the little red dot in the corner of the Mail app that tells you how many unread messages you have waiting) and/or alert notifiers (the little messages that appear in a translucent box to tell you about new SMS messages and battery drain).  This feature will really complete several apps and make them several times more useful.  
I’ll have more goodies soon.