Category Archives: technology use

A History Class Using BYOD (Part 2)

Sarah Denniston introduced BYOD into her courses. She was very concerned about equity and her entrepreneuerial skills in securing funding and help from district staff made it possible for her to finesse the technical and practical difficulties usually accompanying such a move. The narrow slice of what I saw was very impressive in demonstrating how BYOD aided her teaching AP European History. She is an advocate of BYOD because she has made it work for her and her students. Every student has equal access to the technology and she believes that her teaching is better and that students learn more in the electronic, nearly paperless, classroom she has created.

When we talked she emphasized how the devices made it possible for her and students to collaborate in doing assignments, writing, and projects. For example, constant use of Google Docs made student cooperation integral to what Denniston sought and aided her monitoring of their writing. As Denniston put it:

The BYOD allows me to be instantly responsive to student’s needs. If there is a problem with the lesson I have, I can instantly correct it and everyone gets the changes right away. It also allows for me to revise lessons with much greater regularity allowing for a better work flow of revision of my curriculum.

There are other pluses beyond what Denniston said. For example, every student has access to a device and can use it at both school and home. Close to one hundred percent of students, she says, have Internet access at home . No digital divide exists at this high school. With each student bringing a tablet or laptop from home, issues of theft decrease as personal responsibility increases. The cost of having BYOD is also much less than a conventional 1:1 laptop or tablet program.

Beyond Denniston’s rendering of the pluses, there are lists of pluses attributed to BYOD, according to vendors and industry advocates (see here and here).

For readers who cast a skeptical eye on BYOD, considering the negatives that accompany any application of technology to classrooms is necessary. Denniston sees a few in her years using BYOD for her history classes.

1. Technical difficulties. Even with all of the help of district tech specialists, the network fails. Denniston says that failures this year are far less than the previous year but they do occur nonetheless.

2. Distractions for students–texting, Facebook, Instagram–are numerous; monitoring students being on task by walking around classroom seeing what students have on their screens and other tricks of the trade are necessary.

3. Copying, i.e., cut-and-paste writing in class, increase unless teachers monitor time stamp of a student’s work and other ways of insuring that students work independently.

Doubters see many more negatives to BYOD than Denniston (see here and here)

Given these pluses and minuses, seeing Denniston teach the AP European History class was, for me, a proof of concept. BYOD worked for Sarah Denniston. But would it work at Glenville and Cardozo high schools in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. where I observed seven history teachers teach last year? Not now.

Both urban high schools are 99 percent minority and poor. Because of persistent low test performance, they have been restructured twice–new principals and staff. Most students have cell phones but each school prohibits their use in class. Carts of laptops are deployed to the media center and selected teachers for use at Cardozo High School while at Glenville a series of computer labs with desktops are distributed throughout the school. Many, perhaps a majority, of Glenville and Cardozo students have access to the Internet at home but not anywhere near Sarah Denniston’s school. When it comes to BYOD, the digital divide looks unbridgeable. Proof of concept does not mean BYOD can be (or should be) put into practice in all U.S. schools (see here and here).

What Doug Johnson calls an “ethical dilemma” shows up most clearly at Glenville and Cardozo High Schools. Advocates of BYOD who ignore the issue of equity in access to technology in schools turn a blind eye to the socioeconomic divide in the U.S. They press a heavy thumb on the scale of fairness when they want all schools to enlist in BYOD.

Finally, the question of whether students learn more, faster, and better with BYOD remains open. Cost-efficient as BYOD may be does not mean that it is cost-effective. Neither Sarah Denniston or other advocates of BYOD can say with any degree of confidence that students learn more by having 1:1 access to their devices. What matters, of course, are all of those crucial factors that come into play in determining whether students have learned: the teacher’s expertise and experience, her pedagogy, the socioeconomic background of students, the culture of the schooland a handful of other influences. 1:1 laptops and tablets hardly determine what and how students learn.

 

 

 

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A History Class Using Bring-Your-Own-Devices (BYOD)

A few years ago, there was much hype about BYOD. At the time, I had dismissed BYOD for a number of reasons. First, there were the technical difficulties (bandwidth issues and managing different platforms). Second, there were pedagogical constraints that accompany programs where each student has a device (e.g., distraction and off-task behavior, classroom management). Third, there was the equity issue. But BYOD’s appeal continued to spread. I wondered why.

Recently, I heard of a history teacher who implemented a BYOD in her courses. I contacted Sarah Denniston (fictitious name) and she invited me to visit her Northern California high school. Her high school has nearly 1800 students divided about half white and half minority (Asian and Latino). Nearly 20 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch–a measure of poverty used in U.S. public schools. Over 95 percent attend college after graduation. About one-third of the students take Advanced Placement exams with well over 80 percent of test-takers qualifying for college credit. One of those Advanced Placement teachers is Denniston who teaches AP European history. A graduate (and track star) of the high school in which she now teaches, Denniston has been teaching 10 years. About her students, she says:

“I really like [high schoolers’] energy, especially the freshmen and sophomores.” At [that]level, the verbal filter is not as developed and students are willing to ask any and all questions. It’s great to see students’ intellectual level advance, I love the spastic energy of the freshmen and sophomores, that kind of goofiness.”

Denniston uses BYOD in all five of her classes–she sees well over 150 students a day.

I visited her second period AP European history class recently. There are 26 students in the class. Desks are arranged in pods of three. All of the 10th grade students have their tablets and laptops open. For those students (less than 10 percent in the school) who do not have devices, the school issued them tablets for school and home use. On the white board is an announcement: “18 days to AP test. What are you doing to review?” A list of study sessions with day and time are listed for the next two weeks. On the front wall above the whiteboards is a chart entitled “Costa’s Levels of Questions.”

Denniston is in the midst of a unit on “Conservatism, Liberalism, Nationalism, and Romanticism,” specifically the mid-19th century reign of Napoleon III in France. She has multiple activities in play during the 50 minute period. Standing at a podium with her open laptop, Denniston banters with various students on their “Oldcast”–see below. She then launches into a 25-minute illustrated lecture using slides projected on the front screen covering key events in these years (e.g., attempted assassination of Napoleon III, Crimean War, Paris Commune). For unfamiliar words she leaves the podium and adds words to a running list on front board. She spices up lecture with anecdotes (e.g., in 1870, hungry Parisians under siege from German army break into the city zoo and eat the animals). At one point says to class, “I have been kicked offline, the Internet is not working.” A moment later, she is back online and continues the lecture. Students listen and click away.

During the lecture, Denniston reminds students to complete the review worksheet that she gave them earlier on mid-19th century conservatism, liberalism, and nationalism. Students near me whose screens I can see are taking notes on their devices. Some pull down the worksheet on their screen to fill in the blank spaces as she lectures. Four students ask different questions to get facts straight. At the end of the lecture on France’s Third Republic, Denniston announces that the class will return to working on the “Oldcast.” Groans and murmurs course through the room.

The assignment is for students to pair up and use a TV “newscast” format to create a stories about mid-19th century France based on topics in their textbook, what they found on the Internet, or from Denniston’s lectures. Thus, an “Oldcast.” Two students volunteer to give their “Oldcast” in the form of an interview between a mid-19th century factory owner and a worker. The two students carry their open tablets to the front of the room and read from their screens the scripted dialogue they had written. Their “Oldcast” lasts less than five minutes. Class applauds the two students. Denniston then asks students to work in pairs and finish the worksheet or continue working on their “Oldcast.” A moment before the bell rings, as students put away devices, Denniston reminds students of homework; they exit as period ends.

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In Denniston’s AP class, BYOD worked. The school’s technical capacity to accommodate different devices–except for the brief moment the teacher went offline–was in place during the period I was there. The familiar flow of an AP class’s activities (or most history classes for that matter)–short lecture, whole group Q & A, students taking notes, filling in blanks on the worksheet, students participating in pairs to do “Oldcast”–was seamless for the 50 minute period. I did not note any students who were off-task. Denniston was using the technology to enhance her lesson.

In Part 2, I discuss the pluses of BYOD that Denniston and others see. There are decided advantages to BYOD. And disadvantages also that, for now, make it unworkable in many other schools.

 

 

 

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Lessons Learned from a Chalkboard: Slow and Steady Technology Integration (Bradley Emerling)

Bradley Emerling is Principal Research Scientist at Pearson Research and Innovation Network. This commentary appeared in Teachers College Record  on April 13, 2015.

Last winter, while observing and recording classroom lessons for a research project in Japan, I was surprised to hear a sound I had not heard for many years—the sound of chalk. Over a three-week period of observations in Saitama prefecture, I captured 17 classroom videos from various subject areas across 1st to 12th grade. Every classroom I visited was equipped with a large green chalkboard. There were few computers, few projectors or smartboards, and no other visible forms of 21st century technology in most of the classrooms. Japanese colleagues and researchers confirmed this was representative of the average K-12 classroom in Japan. In January 2015, the Tokyo Broadcasting System reported approximately 75% of Japanese classrooms still use chalkboards as the primary medium for presentation of lesson content (Sankyuu, 2015).

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My first reaction was one of astonishment. How could Japan, a society known for its creation of gadgets and highly specialized technological devices, be so far behind in their use of 21st century technology?

As I continued to record lessons, I began to note the masterful way Japanese teachers utilized this “primitive” instructional medium. I also noted how teachers and students alike maintained the chalkboard with consistent and diligent care. Each class assigned one student to serve as the kokuban kakari (person in charge of the chalkboard) who ensured it was clean and ready for use prior to the opening bell for each period. Teachers treated each centimeter of this freshly cleaned board as valuable real estate. They wrote in straight lines with clear and precise characters and paused to erase stray marks or re-write illegible content.

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Math and science teachers used meter sticks as a guide to draw perfectly symmetrical diagrams and tables. Language arts and social studies teachers used a variety of chalk colors, each with a consistent meaning and precise purpose related to grammatical terms, literary themes, or systems of government. They used magnetic timers on the board to pace activities and posted magnetic labels of student names to assign workspace for whole-class demonstrations. Most importantly, teachers carefully preserved a lesson storyline as they progressed across the board. They added elements in a strategic sequence that helped bring coherence to the lesson, and rarely erased content unless they reached a major instructional transition.

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CREATING LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES THROUGH BOARD WRITING

I also conducted post-observation interviews with teachers to ask about instructional planning and decisions. It turns out Japanese educators possess a unique technical vocabulary for describing chalkboard teaching practices, called bansho (board-writing) and bansho-keikaku (board-writing planning). Like many instructional practices in Japan, bansho has been studied and refined over a period of years through use of Japanese lesson study (jugyō kenkyū). During a typical lesson study cycle, teachers conduct research, analyze curriculum, and design a detailed “research lesson” to address a jointly selected investigative theme. One team member teaches the research lesson while colleagues observe and collect data on student learning. The team then engages in extended discussion of results and potential revisions. After two or more cycles of implementation, the process often culminates with an open house where guests are invited to observe teaching of the refined lesson plan (Ermeling & Graff-Ermeling, 2014).

Yoshida (1999) reports how lower elementary mathematics teachers used lesson study to test and refine bansho methods with conceptually rich math problems. For each research lesson, teachers carefully mapped out a chalkboard diagram, including space for whole-class review of previously assigned problems, space for posting the new problem, space dedicated for student presentation of ideas, and space for culminating remarks. More than simply displaying information or solutions, teachers used the chalkboard to summarize, organize, and link a sequence of lesson events to facilitate collective thinking. One teacher explained: “I try to organize the blackboard in such a way that my students and I can see how the lesson progressed and what was talked about during the lesson…” (p. 439). Reports are available in Japanese bookstores summarizing key findings from various bansho lesson-study projects.

Based on analysis of over 200 videos from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Stigler and Hiebert (1999) also describe underlying cultural teaching “scripts” that influence technology choices in different countries. Comparing Japanese and US 8th grade math classrooms, they observed that nearly all Japanese teachers used a chalkboard as the primary visual aid, while many American teachers (at the time of the study) used an overhead projector. More importantly, they point out this was not merely a visual aid preference, but represented a fundamental distinction in teaching approaches. American teachers often chose an overhead projector because they conceived of the visual aid as a tool for focusing students’ attention on one problem at a time and shaping tasks into manageable steps. Even when they used a chalkboard, they would often erase a problem before starting a new one to maintain student focus on immediate information.

The Japanese math teachers, as Yoshida (1999) also noted, used visual aids for a different reason—to provide a record of problems, solution approaches, and key principles discussed over the course of a lesson. In this way, the chalkboard played an important role in helping students make connections and discover new relationships between mathematical ideas (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999). In addition, other Japanese studies report the green color of the chalkboard provides a calming benefit for students, enabling concentration more effectively than a white background (Sankyuu, 2015).

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For these reasons, Japanese teachers’ choice to use a chalkboard instead of an overhead projector (in the 1990s), or instead of computer-based slide presentations (in 2015), is more than simply a delayed reaction to adopt new devices. It reflects a thoughtful decision about which technology might best support particular learning opportunities for students. Similarly, research and development projects, funded by the Japanese government, are now underway, investigating the kinds of learning opportunities and instructional methods best facilitated by new digital technologies (Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications [MIC], n.d.).

COMPARING US AND JAPAN TECHNOLOGY APPROACHES

The more I observed Japanese masterful use of the chalkboard, the more I reflected on technology approaches in US classrooms. Not only do educators rarely discuss the rationale for which technologies might best support particular learning opportunities, many US schools are consumed by a haphazard race to adopt the latest innovation. While many classrooms are decked out with shiny new tablets, document projectors, smartboards, or infrared response systems, far too often these devices are under-utilized, and methods of use vary widely across teachers. There are definitely exceptions to this pattern, such as Project Red or the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, where technology is carefully implemented through ongoing research and development efforts (Digital Promise, n.d.; Project Red, n.d.). But there are many more classrooms where digital devices function as little more than expensive and colorful accessories with minimal influence on existing instructional methods. In other cases, devices sit unused, collect dust, and soon become obsolete, costing thousands of dollars in upgrades.

Despite Japan’s slower pace of technology adoption, one might argue that Japanese educators are well ahead of the US in effective technology integration. Japanese government officials and other prominent educational leaders openly acknowledge the need to begin incorporating 21st century technologies into their teaching and learning environments. Several programs are well underway with this effort such as the Future Schools Promotion Project, involving systematic research on infrastructure and effectiveness of technology integration in selected Japanese pilot schools (MIC, n.d.).

Passed down over centuries from stories of Samurai, the Japanese have a frequently cited proverb that  fittingly describes their approach to technology integration: “when you’re in a hurry, take the slow round-about way” (isogaba maware). Following this advice, the focus in Japanese education is not on how many innovations they rush to implement or how many new gadgets students get to use. Instead, educators focus on collecting evidence of effectiveness and leveraging technology resources (whether it’s a chalkboard or a smartboard) with purpose and intentionality to enhance and facilitate teaching and learning opportunities. As stated in a recent Japanese publication from the Future Schools Project, “Traditional education will be valued while those parts of it that should be extended, broadened, or deepened will evolve significantly” (MIC, n.d., p. 2).

What if educators adopted the same approach in America with devices such as smartboards, and infrared response systems, as well applications such as screencasting, Google Docs, or Evernote? Teams of teachers could treat these devices and applications as critical topics for collaborative inquiry, develop plans for using them in the classroom, articulate hypotheses for how they will create specific learning opportunities, implement, observe and collect data on the results of these lessons. Other teachers could build on these lesson cases by studying, adapting, and refining methods of use for various contexts and learning goals.

As Japanese schools adopt and incorporate emergent technologies, researchers and educators will be studying and documenting effective methods with the same diligent analysis they have demonstrated for decades with bansho. If the objective is to develop deeper understanding of how technologies are used to create learning opportunities for particular learning goals, then “slow and steady” will again prevail over “fast and furious.” The US should take note and consider a more purposeful integration strategy that emphasizes efficacy over hasty implementation.

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Digital Promise. (n.d.). League Research. Retrieved from http://www.digitalpromise.org/initiatives/research#league-research

 

Ermeling, B., & Graff-Ermeling, G. (2014). Learning to learn from teaching: A first-hand account of lesson study in Japan. International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, 3(2), 170–192. Retrieved from http://independent.academia.edu/BradleyErmeling

 

Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC). (n.d.). Creating the Learning Environment of the Future. Retrieved from http://www.soumu.go.jp/main_content/000299868.pdf

 

Project Red. (n.d.). Project Red: The Research. Retrieved from http://www.projectred.org/about/research-overview.html

 

Sankyuu, T. (Presenter). (2015, January 22). Chalk industry crisis: Decision to cease production of long standing educational IT. [Radio Broadcast]. In K. Arakawa (Producer), Day Catch News Ranking. Tokyo,

Japan: Tokyo Broadcasting System Holdings, Inc.

 

Stigler, J., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.

 

Yoshida, M. (1999). Lesson Study: An ethnographic investigation of school-based teacher development in Japan. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (AAT 9951855)

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos That May Make You Wince: Pervasive Cell Phone Syndrome

Instead of cartoons this month, I offer these photos on cell phone-mania that may get you to either smile, laugh, or even grimace. Or maybe all three. These photos came to me from Nick Burbules at the University of Illinois who, in turn, received them from his colleague in Argentina, Beatriz Fainholc. Click on “El Mundo Cambio” and enjoy!

EL MUNDO CAMBIO

Oops! Here are two cartoons I did find.william-haefeli-everyone-here-is-bonding-over-pictures-of-their-dogs-new-yorker-cartoonharry-bliss-hold-on-let-me-get-a-picture-of-you-taking-a-picture-of-yourself-while-g-new-yorker-cartoon

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iPads and Teachers: a Response (Matt Candler)

Matt Candler is CEO of 4.0 Schools. He responded to Peg Tyre’s post in Bright, April 6, 2015. I offer my thoughts on the Tyre post and Candler’s response below.

I loved reading Peg’s piece, especially her take on effective personalized learning at Bricolage Academy — a school I’ve watched grow from an idea in Josh Densen’s head to a thriving community fulfilling many of its promises.

While I agree with Peg’s frustrations about personalized and blended learning overall, her focus on myth-busting stops short of explaining how innovative schools like Bricolage actually get the way they are. Valuing teachers is important, but there’s much more to effective innovation than that.

In particular, I think what makes Bricolage and other innovative communities so disruptive is a focus on mindset before resources.

Here are three techniques great innovators use to create communities like Bricolage — techniques that will make your use of personalized and blended learning better tomorrow. For way less than the $1.3B that Los Angeles spent on iPads.

Good innovators start cheap and iterate.

As we’ve seen in manufacturing, software, and even the restaurant business, waterfall methods (spend tons of time and money to plan the perfect solution, then push it over the waterfall) are losing ground to agile development (start small, iterate quickly based on lots of smaller tests) in schools like Bricolage.

This simple reordering — mindset first, resources second — allows members of innovative communities to make tectonic shifts in traditional approaches by making lots and lots of little bets instead of massive $1.3B gambles that inevitably prove unfulfilling.

This is where I wish Peg dug in more in her explanation of Bricolage culture. It’s not the lack of bells and whistles that makes Bricolage special. What makes Bricolage special is investing in a mindset of creative confidence before picking the bells and whistles.

Look at the tools Diana Turner’s using: homemade YouTube videos (free), cell phone or tablet cameras (probably free) and Google Docs (free). Look at how she’s using them; they make her so human, so real. And she’s modeling for kids how to solve their own challenges in a more creative, efficient way.

This focus on making things seeps into everything at Bricolage. You won’t see many bake sales or book fairs at the school; rather, you’re more likely to get an invite to New Orleans Mini Maker Faire.

Good innovators listen to their users.

Starting cheap and iterating only works if you adjust to user feedback in between each iteration.

Before Josh Densen wrote the application to start his charter school, he started doing “pop-up classrooms” at music festivals around town. He’d cleverly set up his table close enough to the blow-up bounce house that all music festival organizers worth their salt set up — so close that you almost wondered if he was the guy who’d paid for it. He had no brochures, no propaganda. He’d just stand there next to his own kids as they played with some really cool new learning tools he wanted to test. Families would wander in to the festival and do a double take. There Josh would be, smiling, ready to talk with parents about school — what they liked, what they didn’t, what they dreamed of in a school.

A diverse mix of families started showing up at the pop-ups, and Josh felt it was time to test his ideas at a deeper level. He struck a deal with Samuel Green Charter School: he would to show up at the school a few times with some of the pop-up kids, and have them join Green kids in a test run of his design thinking class.

The best entrepreneurs do this consistently; they make high frequency attempts at new solutions — each repeated attempt an improvement based on what they learned from users.

Good innovators steal.

Josh stole his early-stage pop-up ideas from food truck operators. There was a big fight going on at the time between old-line New Orleans restaurants and a bunch of cooks working out of food trucks serving more diverse food. We talked about this fight at 4.0 Schools, where I serve as CEO; one of our teammates, Cambria Martinelli, worked with the food truck coalition on the side.

Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From, explains how common this stealing — what he calls “exaptation” — is among innovators. Exaptation occurs when someone crosses the membrane between one domain and another, extracts something that’s serving one purpose there, and then adapts it in the original domain for a different purpose. Josh’s application of the food truck concept in schooling is a great example.

We could use more of this in schooling. Teachers — even the good ones Peg raves about — are often too out of touch with the world around them. In a 2012 study, McKinsey found that only 45% of kids and 42% of employers thought schools were doing a good job preparing students for the world of work. Meanwhile back in our schools, when teachers were asked the same question, 72% said they were doing great.

We’ve created a profession that’s entirely too isolated from the world around it. Shoving tools — hardware or software — into that world won’t do nearly as much as changing the mindsets of the people doing their level best to serve kids within it.

My latest exaptation candidate is twitch.tv. Twitch.tv lets experts in World of Warcraft (or any other game) teach others how to play, hack, and win. Seth Stevenson explained the learning that’s actually happening: “Well, those viewers are finding a community of like-minded souls, they’re engaging over a shared interest, and they’re getting tips from superior gamers on how to win at the games.”

On Twitch, I see more than the 24% engagement Peg mentions as the state of ed-tech today. These platforms aren’t perfect, but I’m inspired by the engagement and curious about how we could exapt this kind of platform into schooling. What if a group of kids tried a low-tech version of twitch.tv for an hour in their own classrooms? How fast could we build on those little experiments to truly rethink engagement? What role would the teacher have in that scenario? What could happen if we really mixed what we know about teaching with examples from completely unexpected places?

Peg got this dialogue going with some myths that deserve busting. But we shouldn’t stop there. We can start making personalized learning better right now. We can start by making many more, much smaller bets. This is better for our kids and for our collective wallet. And we should start listening to our users — students, families, and yes, teachers. Doing so will lead to innovation that’s much more fulfilling. I promise.

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After reading both Tyre and Candler, I had these thoughts.  First, Candler deals with what “ought to be”about innovation and technology in public schools while Tyre deals with “what is” when it comes to technology-assisted personalized instruction (a.k.a. blended learning).  The difference between having a dream of a better future and getting through the day well in an urban school is the difference between wearing rose-colored glasses and seeing the world as it is.  Nothing wrong about dreaming–it can be a beginning point to a finer world–but unanchored in the daily (and gritty) realities of school life, Candler’s “should” becomes seriously detached from any workable strategy of urban school improvement.

Second, Tyre’s focus is on the centrality of a knowledgeable and skilled teacher who understands when and how to use available technologies. Candler’s focus mentions teachers, of course, but unrelentingly directs the reader’s attention to innovation and what’s in the heads of those innovators–their “mindset.” No word about the conditions on the ground, the context in which school and classroom innovations are birthed and nurtured.Not a syllable mentioned about the abundance of inexperienced teachers visited upon urban children and youth.

Third, Candler’s takes the one example of Josh Densen, founder of the New Orleans Parish charter called Bricolage, and shows how Schools 4.0, an organization Candler founded, helped incubate the charter to where it is now. Bricolage opened two years ago and now has 150 students in kindergarten and first grade. It is a fine, worthy example. But Bricolage or similar instances of schools cannot do the serious cooking in the kitchen necessary to understand deeply the work facing teachers seeking to improve urban schooling. Tyre’s analysis of myths points to a stronger meat-and-potatoes (or vegan) technology-enhanced diet that can improve urban schools. Candler’s offers bytes of cotton candy.

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iPads and Teachers: Why Technology-assisted Learning Will Never, on Its Own, Solve Our Education Crisis (Peg Tyre)

Peg Tyre is a journalist. This article appeared in Bright, April 6, 2015.

At the Carpe Diem-Meridian School in Indianapolis, row after row of students are wearing headphones and staring into computer screens. Although they look like employees at a call center, they are actually fifteen-year-olds tackling algebra concepts. Their lessons were delivered earlier in the day by a software program offered by Edgenuity and reinforced by an instructor. Now the students are working through problems on their monitors, to show they have mastered it. Their results will be quickly fed back to their instructors, who will use it to shape the next day’s instruction.

Two students finish quickly and check the overhead monitor for their next task. Others are sweating through sophisticated problems. A few, who are struggling with the material, are working on problems that a software algorithm has determined are simpler but will help build the foundational skills they need. And, as in any classroom, some students are using ancient technology that has become less central at Carpe Diem schools — a notepad and a pen — to make abstract doodles.

Improvements in public education, we are told, are going to be accelerated, disrupted, and finally transformed by technology-assisted personalized learning (also known as blended learning). For the first time in the history of schooling, kids can interact with their teachers through personal computers or iPads. With adaptive assessment, continuous feedback will create a constantly changing portrait of what kids know, allowing algorithms to recalibrate lessons to fit students’ needs.

The promise is this: all children, particularly those in isolated rural communities and those in chaotic schools with inexperienced teachers, will be able to get the kind of education that was once reserved for the elite.

Technology will create private tutors that are masters of their subjects. But unlike human teachers — who are expensive and time-consuming to train, have variable levels of talent, and leave the profession in droves — the electronic versions will be cheap, top-notch from the very start, easily updatable, and available 24/7.

In theory, it should work. Kurt VanLehn, a researcher at Arizona State University, conducted a meta-analysis of more than 80 studies of “intelligent,” computer-based tutoring systems — ones used to teach physics to college students, physics, or medical students about cardiovascular physiology — and found that the best of these systems can nearly match the performance of human tutors.

Schools like KIPP Empower, Carpe Diem, and Rocketship, along with sites like Khan Academy, show anecdotal evidence that given the right circumstances, blended learning works. Enticed by incentives from the federal government and deep-pocketed philanthropy, superintendents all over the country, from Tulsa to Ann Arbor, are recasting budgets and issuing bonds in order to invest in the hardware needed to bring blended learning to their struggling districts.

Blended learning models, which were pioneered for corporations and the military, have been around since the 1990s. The rush to add blending learning in classrooms, though, began in earnest about a dozen years ago. Thus far, however, solid research on the effects of K-12 blended-learning is thin. Smaller studies, most often conducted with older students, suggest that blended-learning can produce a modestly positive effect on learning — although researchers warn the uptick is just as likely to be a product of extended learning time and focus, rather than any alchemy of teaching and technology. It seems to work best when students are learning math, which relies in part on students learning, practicing, and applying procedural knowledge.

Still, everyone wants the magic bullet that will help all kids — especially poor kids — learn more with less.

There have been some high profile setbacks. In Los Angeles, the $1.3 billion effort to give iPads to 650,000 public schools students went up in flames. The software was incomplete, and many students used the tablets to play Candy Crush rather than watch historic presidential speeches. Within a few months, the superintendent was out of a job and the entire initiative was under investigation by the FBI. Across the country, the school district in Guilford County, North Carolina, once held up as a model early adopter, struggled and hit the reset button on their program, too.

To be sure, schools are successfully using education technology for targeted tasks, like streamlining parent-teacher communication, collecting homework, disseminating grades, filing permission slips, and letting teachers share lesson plans. But efficient, low-cost, sustainable blended learning in the classroom is turning out to be hard to do right. And in many cases, it is freighted with hidden costs: replacing broken hardware, updating software, retro-fitting old buildings for WiFi, and providing adequate training to new teachers.

These days, it’s common to find schools obtaining impressive student gains with technology-assisted learning — but it may be equally common to find schools where it was announced with great fanfare but died a quick, quiet death. Those classrooms are now littered with racks of unused iPads and broken Chromebooks.

Teaching kids, especially those who lag behind, is hard. It requires focus, energy, deep knowledge and resources. Technology changes the equation — but perhaps not as dramatically as blended learning evangelists want us to believe.

Here are four observations that ground the conversation about personalized learning in the messy realities of educating young people — and especially our vulnerable learners.

1. There is no magic device that helps kids learn more.

When you hear about some grand new initiative to give every student an iPad or smartphone, be very skeptical. No single piece of technology has yet to change the basic nature of teaching and learning. Radio, television, CDs, Smartboards, and personal computers were all hailed as transformative educational innovations in their day. They were not. iPads won’t be either. There is a big difference between finding new ways to deliver information and true educational innovation, which a far more complicated endeavor. Yes, an iPad can make an endless supply of images, books and instructional videos available to students any time, anywhere. But learning is about engaging with that material in deep, essentials ways that help build, extend and ultimately create new knowledge. It takes more than swiping.

2. For the most part, education software is worse than you think.

Teaching may look easy, but great teaching is complicated.

Master teachers are something like NBA stars; they have a seemingly endless supply of tiny, almost gestural moves that can have a big impact on a kid’s cognition. They make split-second choices about how to introduce new ideas, speak in a way that resonates, order concepts for maximum comprehension, and reinforce ideas and skills. Those choices depend on the teacher’s reading of the subtleties of a specific situation.

Technology-assisted personalized learning has come a long way, but it’s hard to get software to replicate what teachers do. And too often, it ends up being a simple lesson and an electronic worksheet buried among some zippy graphics.

Getting it right will require continual investment on the part of many software designers. What’s the holdup? It’s not clear what the financial incentive will be. Great teachers aren’t likely to buy into the vision of any single ed tech company. They want to integrate ideas — likely from several sources, designers, and companies — into their own creative processes. Schools that are trying to move from terrible to so-so might grab hold of a one-size-fits-all software package. But until education entrepreneurs develop easy-to-use, software than can be splintered in many different ways, great teachers won’t use it and the promise of technology-assisted personalized learning will be unfulfilled. “It’s like the printing press has been invented,” said one teacher in New Orleans wistfully. “But the great books have not yet been written.”

3. Tech-assisted personalized learning is not going to be the answer for every kid.

For those in the education reform community, making a visit to a Carpe Diem schools is like the hajj. You are strongly advised to do it once. And for good reason. Carpe Diem schools, which exist in Arizona, Indianapolis, Ohio, and soon Texas, look and run differently than the high school you probably attended: no gym, no lockers, no pep rally. Instead, Carpe Diem instruction is delivered through computers and supplemented by face-to-face instruction. Their tasks are directed by overhead airport-style monitors. There are no ringing bells to mark the end of class. Students advance at their own pace.

Since adapting the blended-learning model in 2006, results at the first Carpe Diem school in Yuma, Arizona have been strong. The sixth graders there were first in the state in math in 2010. Other Carpe Diem schools have boasted similar results. The per-pupil cost is lower than at traditional public schools, too.

Carpe Diem schools are not for every kid, though. Founder Rick Ogston cracked that he opened Carpe Diem to provide kids with a great education — but many of the initial applicants had exactly the opposite idea in mind. “They took one look at the computers, the lack of supervision and oversight, and thought it would be good way to avoid getting a great education,” he said. “And that’s what we have to watch out for.” He’s joking, of course, but there’s a grain of truth there.

Indeed, in a recent survey by the education tech company TES Global, only twenty-four percent of 1,000 U.S. teachers who used their products agreed that technology “improves student engagement.”

In other words, three-quarters of teachers using educational technology — remember, these are not Luddites but teachers that are already logging in — believe it has no effect, or worse, is a distraction.

4. Technology-assisted personalized learning is not going to get rid of a central problem in American schooling: We are not training and retaining nearly enough great teachers.

Everyone wants a plug-and-play school, with cheap, portable, high-quality lessons originated by a single instructor and delivered to thousands of students. It’s a vision — think Khan Academy on steroids — that promises to resolve what has become a seemingly intractable problem in American public education: we aren’t producing that many great teachers. One charter network in Ohio is experimenting with robot teachers — four foot plastic towers topped with a video image of the (off-site) teacher’s face.

Up close, technology-assisted personalized learning doesn’t seem to reduce the need for great teachers; in fact, the most successful programs seem to rely on them. In the Bricolage Academy, a charter school in a middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans, first grade teacher Diana Turner uses technology to amplify what she does best: explain and reinforce complex mathematical concepts so that six-year-olds can grasp and retain it. She then provides the children with opportunities to use that knowledge in a variety of different ways.

It looks like this. First, Turner gives her full class a high-energy lesson on how to add two digit numbers in their heads. “What does 54 plus 24 equal, Ce’ Leb?” she asks. Ce’ Leb knits his brow. She waits for the answer. “88,” he says finally. “Why do you think that?” she asks. While explaining how he broke the numbers down into tens and ones, he realizes his mistake and amends his answer.

By her students’ facial expressions and body language, Turner can tell which kids are getting it (most) and which kids aren’t (four kids in particular seem a little foggy on the whole idea.) She puts the bulk of her class to work on a simple pencil-and-paper worksheet and quickly reteaches the concept to two of the laggards.

After a few minutes, she reformulates her class again. A group of eight kids begin representing a list of two-digit numbers by counting beans into tens and ones cups, giving them a physical sense of place value. Five others grab chunky plastic covered iPads, don headphones, and listen to Turner via some homemade videos she posted to YouTube. In the videos, she is coaching her students to add two digit numbers on a dry erase board, photograph their results, and send it to her Google Docs account. With fourteen of her students learning with iPads and YouTube or Dixie Cups and dried beans, Turner is free to give a quick private lesson to two students who need it re-explained.

Bricologe principal Josh Densen believes blended learning is great “because it allows us to enhance the teacher’s effect. But it only works so well because we have a great teacher who is running it.”

Can technology-assisted personalized learning work with sub-standard teachers or teachers who work remotely and never meet their students at all? “I’ve seen schools try that,” said Densen, with a shrug. “It’s not something we think is viable.”

School staffing is notoriously unstable. Superintendents come and go, principals are increasingly on the move, and most teachers leave the profession in five years. What happens when superstar teachers like Turner move on?

Densen’s formula is to make sure technology enhances but doesn’t replace the relationship between teacher and student, which from his perspective, “needs to be at the center of every kid’s learning experience.” And that means investing in technology for the classroom but also investing in coaching to help Bricolage teachers grow.

Finding and growing great teachers is devilishly hard. Retaining them is very expensive. Without them, though, technology-assisted personalized learning is just not a way to do more with less. Rather, it is a way to deliver less with less. And that would be a promise unfilled.

Part 2 of this guest post will be a response to this post from Matt Chandler, CEO of 4.0 Schools.

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Kids as Tour Guides: Integrating Student-Created Media into History Class (Kerry Gallagher)

Kerry Gallagher , a veteran middle school and high school history teacher posted this project she did with her ninth graders. It appeared Feb 20, 2015 on EdSurge.

Why do we travel? How do we choose a place to put down roots? What draws us there? Today, when we plan to travel or relocate, we do research. We find out about the climate, people, culture, and economy that we are about to dive into.

I wanted my students to experience that kind of research process, and to arrive at an answer relating the question of why people are drawn to places. After all, project-based learning should allow students to experience authentic processes while learning content. But I also wanted them to show their learning through a product that professionals typically publish: tourism commercials.

And so, that is what we did.

Step 1: Frame the Task

In our early North American colonies unit, students learned about the cultures and economies of the 17th century colonies. What was the draw? Why did Europeans take the risky trek across the volatile Atlantic Ocean to put down roots in a place so far away? It was time for my students to start investigating.

First, I showed the ninth graders real tourism advertisements I found on YouTube; they watched clever ads from across the continent in California and from their home turf in Massachusetts. Then we talked, in small groups and as a class, about what made each place attractive. Some of the items on the list had to do with the places themselves: lots to do, beautiful scenery, welcoming people, while other students mentioned aspects of the video production: bright colors, upbeat music, cheerful narrative script.

Step 2: Start the Research

Small groups of 2-3 students chose an early North American colony from New York in the North to Georgia in the South, and started digging for information about founding leadership, religion, economy, climate, and culture. Students used articles from our school subscription databases and books from the classroom and school libraries.

When students gathered their information in Evernote or Google Drive, they shared it with me for extra input and approval. Once I reviewed their work and pushed them deeper with some guiding questions, a real vision of their colonies became clearer.

Step 3: Pulling it Together

This next step is a great opportunity for interdisciplinary learning, for those teachers who are interested in it.

As students began writing their scripts, they were instructed to use what they learned about persuasive techniques from their English classes. My colleague Kate Crosby even pointed me toward a handy guide to the Aristotelian Appeals ethos, pathos, and logos they’d used in her freshman English class, making this a truly interdisciplinary endeavor. They also had to consider who their commercial might target: families? young men just starting out? the wealthy? the religious?

Once the script was crafted, students looked for images to represent their colony and used iMovie to put together their commercial and Airdrop to share it with me. Finally, I uploaded the videos to my YouTube channel, specifically created for student projects.

Step 4: Hosting a Viewing Party

Students showed their final commercials to one another in the classroom. No information was given to the audience prior to the screening, but while watching, other students were given varying information to look for: economy, culture, religion, leaders, and method of persuasion utilized. The audience told the creators what they learned from the video, and the creators confirmed or clarified the details.

Step 5: Reflect, Report, Publish

Any great project can’t be complete without reflection, so my students share their learning on blogs. The benefit of this medium is that the final work can be a mix of written expression illustrated with images and video clips.

  • Kirsten’s post about her New Jersey ad is a great example. She wrote about the process we went through in class, what she learned about New Jersey, embedded her video, and concluded with an analysis of persuasive techniques employed.
  • Olivia’s post on Georgia was also well put together and her group’s video production quality was perhaps the best of the class. See the video below. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SJxYaDpSL4

This journey brought my students through required curriculum, but also gave them experience with the real process people must go through before traveling to a destination or developing marketing material. When real world skills are combined with rich content, the best of project-based learning happens.

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Filed under how teachers teach, technology use