Category Archives: technology use

When Teaching and Parenting Collide: As Schools Shift Online, Many Educators Manage Two Roles (Matt Barnum)

Matt Barnum is a journalist. This article appeared on Chalkbeat, March 31,2020

School buildings are closed, but it’s still been a busy couple of weeks for Noriko Nakada, a Los Angeles middle school teacher.

She’s been attending virtual faculty meetings, receiving district training for remote instruction, and grading student essays online. On Monday, she held a class via Zoom for about 45 minutes, in which she checked in on her students’ mental health and introduced National Poetry Month. About 100 of her 170 students logged in.

Nearby through it all are her own two children, who are out of school as well. Figuring out how to teach online while making sure they’re occupied has been its own challenge.

“At first we tried to make it clear if mom or dad have headphones and are staring at the computer, it means you can’t bug them,” Nakada said. “The 8-year-old can get that, but the 5-year-old has a hard time.”

“Everyone is doing their best, and none of it’s going to be pretty,” she said.

As many schools across the country transition to remote instruction — in the wake of widespread building closures caused by the new coronavirus — Nakada’s experience is the new normal.

A sizable share of America’s teachers have young children. Most teachers are women, who often bear disproportionate caregiving responsibilities for children and other family members. And although many of the country’s large districts say they’re attempting to be flexible with teachers as they move to remote instruction, few if any have policies that explicitly accommodate those juggling work and full-time caregiving.

That’s making for some complicated daily decisions about whose kids are getting attention at a given moment. It’s a challenge that schools will have to continue helping teachers navigate in order to make remote instruction work, especially as it extends for weeks and months.

“The history of teaching, since we’ve feminized the profession, there’s been this emphasis on teachers [as] ultimately altruistic — they love children,” said Judith Kafka, a professor of education policy at Baruch College. “For the vast majority of teachers, that’s true about them. But they’re not usually asked to sacrifice attention to their own children in the process.”

“If you are home alone with your kids, and you’re also trying to meet your students’ needs, something’s got to give,” she said.

About half — 48% — of all public school teachers have children living at home, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero. This includes young children, who need constant supervision, as well as teenagers, who might not.

Among those teachers is Brian Grimes who is now setting up his kids — ages 7, 9, and 13 — to work at the dining room table every morning instead of sending them off to school.

“It’s like the summer, but there’s no fun,” said Grimes, who lives in New Jersey.

Once they’re settled, he starts his own job as a high school history teacher — videotaping lessons, grading assignments, talking to students and their families — a few feet away.

It’s been a dizzying transition. “I put my shirt and tie on and I go to work, it’s ‘teacher Brian,’ and then when I come home, it’s ‘parent Brian,’” he said. “Now everything is merged together.”

Many children, after all, haven’t yet adjusted to the sudden shift. “It’s very difficult,” said Alexis Mann, a Minneapolis teacher. “They don’t understand when mom’s home, that I’m actually working.”

In one respect, though, the fact that teachers are still facing these challenges reflects good news. As millions of workers face layoffs, teachers still have jobs and a steady paycheck.

But the change presents unique challenges for teachers, and few districts appear to have offered specific accommodations for teachers who are also caregivers. “We haven’t seen a lot of policy or explicit guidance on that,” said Sean Gill, a research analyst with the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has been compiling large districts’ coronavirus response policies. (Many districts are still developing, or have not fully instituted, a remote instruction plan.)

Gill said that most districts don’t seem to be requiring teachers to conduct live instruction at specific times. Miami-Dade County schools, for instance, says it expects teachers to be available for at least three hours every day to students, but gives teachers the freedom to decide on those hours themselves.

Philadelphia’s guidance to educators says that “daily work schedules should remain largely unchanged” but that “reasonable flexibility shall also be used to accommodate employees’ individual needs.”

Gill suggested that teachers collaborate to ease each other’s burdens — for instance, a teacher available during the day could focus on connecting with students, while another teacher videotapes lessons at night that students could watch on their own.

Grimes said his school district has told teachers to monitor their emails during the day and to grade student work promptly, but generally been flexible. “They understand that we’re dealing with a lot on our own,” he said.

Nakada said her school district, LAUSD, hasn’t communicated explicit policies for caregivers. A spokesperson for the district said that teachers are expected to work during the day and hold office hours at least three times a week at flexible times.

That sort of flexibility is essential, teachers say. Mercedes Liriano, who teaches fifth grade in the Bronx, says her principal expects teachers to attend two staff meetings a week but otherwise has been accommodating.

“He knows that we have family, he knows that we have other requirements that demand our time,” she said.

A spokesperson for New York City’s Department of Education reiterated this. “We understand that teachers and staff may be caring for others,” said Danielle Filson. “There are no expectations for specific time periods for teachers to be logged in and schools are not expected to replicate a regular school day schedule in a virtual environment.”

But there are challenges. Liriano has two computers at home, meaning she and her two children are one device short at all times. And then she is also trying to help her son, who sometimes struggles in school, get through his lessons.

“I’m having to navigate helping my parents and my students, who are constantly calling, while I’m trying to help my son at the same time,” she said. “But I can’t be on my computer while he’s trying to do his work.”

In any case, trying to get work done while children are at home is complicated — the new reality for millions of parents, teachers among them. For some, the fear and uncertainty associated with the global pandemic that precipitated all the disruption has made it even tougher.

“There’s so much time and mental space that’s being occupied by the coronavirus,” Alex Driver, a New York City teacher who is also the parent of twin six-year-olds. “So much head space is being taken up by that, and then we also have the back and forth of parenting and teaching. And then what’s left?”

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Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools

2020 is the 11th year I have been writing posts for this blog. In those 11 years, I have also written a few books. Every time I have had a new book come out, publishers and friends urge me to advertise the book on my blog.

I am torn, however. One part of me thinks that it is too pushy, too braggish, to tout my book in the blog. It is not that I am inherently a modest man but the thought of blowing my trumpet about what I do or did, well, makes me wince in embarrassment.

Yet another part of me says: “Hey, at a time when screens and the air are filled with constant grabbing for attention,” (eyeballs, as flacks put it), “I need to do the same.” After all, I am not on Facebook and only tweet titles of my posts when I publish them. Social media is largely foreign to me although readers of the blog, tweet about posts I have published–so I do benefit from that. Consider further that over a million self-published books come out a year (2017). Book readers have to be especially selective.

Moreover, with this abundance of reading material at a time when sustained attention to read a 200-page book competes with reading one’s Facebook pages and twitter feed, getting reviewed in a national newspaper, magazine, or media publication is rare–the New York Times reviews less than three percent of new books it receives. Yes, you can cadge reviews for your book on Amazon, but the cachet is limited. So why not blow my trumpet–that other part of me says.

This back-and-forth interior conversation is what occurred when I received a note from Harvard Education Press that my new book, Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools will be available next month. I decided that I will post a few paragraphs taken from the “acknowledgements” page to describe why I wrote a book about success and failure in American schools.

Every book has its creation story. For this one, there is nothing exotic or path breaking. In my career as a teacher, administrator, and professor since 1955 (I retired in 2001 but continued to teach and write) I have spent my professional time in researching and writing on questions about educational policy and practice that tugged at me for answers.  For that I am most grateful. But now as the sun is setting on my career I wanted to pull disparate threads together from my earlier writings that touched larger issues in the journey that educational policy takes toward the classroom.

In Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools, I wanted to answer a question that has bothered me for a long time.  Given my knowledge of the history of efforts to alter what occurs in schools and classrooms, why has the constant refrain of school reform failing again and again and schools never changing sounded off kilter? A few years ago, I had a chance to explore the question of the supposed failure of school reform and lack of change in U.S. schools when Jay Greene and Michael McShane asked me to do a chapter in their edited collection called Failure Up Close: What Happens, Why It Happens, and What We Can Learn from It.

Writing that chapter got me thinking about the dominance of current policy definitions of “success” and “failure” in public schools. So I began asking myself a bunch of questions: Had those policy definitions been around for just the past few years? Decades? Centuries? Had these notions of “success” and “failure” changed over time? Where did they come from? How and why did tax-supported public schools adopt these definitions of “success” and “failure?” What do these definitions look like when applied to actual schools and classrooms? And, finally, can contemporary definitions of “success” be stretched to encompass other goals for teachers and students in public schools?

Like much of my previous writings, these questions started on the busy four-lane highway of reform-driven policymaking and then hopped on two-way roads and eventually one-way streets of educational practice to see what happened to those adopted policies when they finally appeared in schools and classrooms. Some reforms stuck, some morphed in familiar ways of running schools and teaching. And some disappeared. The above questions bugged me enough to travel anew this familiar path of policy-to-practice.

Those questions spurred me to send Harvard Education Press yet another proposal to write the book you have in hand. I have answered these and related questions in this book partially scratching the itch that got me this far. I say “partially” because I am uncertain whether what I have written here misses questions about stability and change in U.S. schools that I should have asked or errs in what I have concluded.  As I said above, the creation story for this book is neither exotic nor path breaking. It is what it is.

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Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies, technology use

Whatever Happened to Interactive Whiteboards?

You cannot eat one potato chip. You have to have more. Technological innovations hyped to transform teaching and learning are like potato chips. No district, no school just buys one. Laptops, tablets, and Interactive whiteboards (IWB) are typical examples. Consider the history of this high-tech classroom device.

Beginning in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, schools purchased interactive whiteboards by the truckload. British educators jumped on board this technological innovation with great enthusiasm especially after the government underwrote the buying of the technological innovation. In a glowing, enthusiastic article (2010), a writer described the results of the government largesse.

At St. Matthew Academy, a school for 3- to 16-year-olds serving a group of depressed London neighborhoods and similar to “turnaround schools” in American cities, IWBs have become fixtures in every classroom, with an eye to keeping students engaged. Assistant Principal David Cregan says that the boards are used for everything from mapping concepts—where students fill in an onscreen matrix with their ideas—to reviewing past lessons, where students unscramble letters to discover key words or ideas to launch a classroom discussion.

In the U.S. IWBs enjoyed a surge of enthusiasm beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s.While there are different kinds of IWBs with accompanying software and pens to use, many districts outfitted entire schools with IWBs costing somewhere between $3K-5K for one in each classroom. In Silicon Valley, where I visited many classrooms, I saw some teachers use these devices imaginatively with much student participation and others to basically illustrate a lecture with video clips and Internet links.

Overall, then, IWBs beginning in England and arriving in the U.S. two decades ago have come and stayed. They are still around. While sales of IWBs expand in other nations, particularly in Asia, sales have annually decreased in the U.S. Declining sales track the hype cycle so familiar to American educators in love with new technologies.

What Problems Do Interactive Whiteboards Intend To Solve?

Apart from the glitter of a new technology aimed at teaching and learning, district and school administrators saw IWBs as solving the ever-constant problems of student motivation, engagement, and academic achievement.

IWBs gave teacher total access to information on the Internet and new tools to expand their repertoire of lecture, whole group discussion, small group teaching, and students’ independent work, thereby enhancing existing teaching approaches. The theory was that IWBs, then, by engaging students would remedy partially or wholly those ever-constant problems faced in classrooms.

What Does Use of Interactive Whiteboards Look Like in Practice?*

A Philadelphia high school English teacher describes her use of the IWB:

I have been using an interactive whiteboard for several years, and honestly, I like having the board available. The software that comes with the board offers me a nice way to organize and save the work we do each day. If we mark up a document during a lesson, I can save it and refer back to it the next day. Often, I use the board to share information for mini-lectures, to demonstrate activities, or to show video clips or images to enhance my lessons.

Does that mean that none of my teaching is student-centered? No way. I am often at the board for a total of five or ten minutes and then my students are working together in small groups, or we are engaged in class discussions about the literature we are reading. I sometimes return to the board to troubleshoot when a majority of my students are stuck, and that makes life easier for all of us.

Over the course of the past few years, my students have used the interactive whiteboard to showcase their learning through presentations. And when we are editing and writing as a class, we can share documents in real time. In other words, the students get to direct the learning.

The interactive whiteboard is a tool that lends itself to direct instruction, but it does not dictate that all the instruction needs to be teacher-directed.

From an article on a 4th grade classroom using an IWB.

Teaching artist Lisa Rentz worked with a classroom teacher on the group story-writing experience. Students read the book Circle Unbroken and then used it as inspiration for an original group story. “[The teacher] and I used the Smartboard to take notes, viewable by all, of the students’ ideas, words and decisions, as we went through the story-writing process– brainstorming, developing characters, commencing the plot, dialogue and word choice,” said Rentz.

Because the notes were on the interactive whiteboard, they were able to save them, print them and use them for outlines and handouts. “The Smartboard pages were printed out every day as the story grew.  Each night I typed up everything for handouts the next day, and then resumed with the board until the conclusion of the story, which the students wrote individually,” said Rentz.

Do Interactive Whiteboards Work?

Sold as a way of increasing student motivation, engagement, collaboration, and academic achievement while altering how teachers teach to the whole class and small groups, research results, as one has come to expect in education, are decidedly mixed. Early enthusiasm that such devices–like laptops and desktop computers–increase students’ test scores shrunk as studies showed, at best, mixed results–including meta-analyses of the research. See here, here, here, here, and here.

Similarly, on results for increased student engagement and more collaboration, studies initially showed some gains but, again, the results are, at best, ambivalent. See here.

Why Do We Now Hear So Little Today about Interactive Whiteboards?

One answer is simply the hype cycle and what happens to many technological innovations.

Where to put IWBs in the cycle might be in the “Trough of Disillusionment,” “Slope of Enlightenment,” or “Plateau of Productivity” I cannot say since the evidence is sparse. Readers will have to decide, given their knowledge and experience with this once highly touted innovation.

Another reason often given by observers is that implementation of the device was hampered greatly by complicated software accompanying IWBs and the lack of one-to-one staff development for the innovation.

I would suggest another possible reason. It lacks much evidence, however, other than what I have observed, heard from teachers, and know about the history of classroom teaching. IWBs inherently reinforce teacher-centered instruction (e.g., lecture, demonstrations, frontal teaching) at a time when the rhetoric among educators and school practitioners is student-centered instruction (e.g., much student participation, collaboration, and student choice). The clash between rhetoric and practice often goes unspoken and seldom noticed. After all, teachers adapt innovations to their lessons once the tinsel wears thin on an innovation and for those teachers who swear by their IWB, it is another tool in their kit of ways of getting students to learn.

And then there is occasional teacher reaction that may or may not mirror what many teachers felt and thought about IWBs purchased by administrators for use in their classrooms. Here is Bill Ferriter, a North Carolina public school sixth grade teacher’s response to IWBs.

I’ll admit that there aren’t many topics I’m more passionate about than interactive whiteboards in the classroom.

Seen as the first step towards “21st century teaching and learning,” schools and districts run out and spend thousands of dollars on these gizmos, hanging them on walls and showing them off like proud hens that just laid the golden instructional egg.

I gave mine away last summer. After about a year’s worth of experimenting, I determined that it was basically useless.

My hunch is that IWBs, like sister technological devices over the past century, enjoyed its moment in the pedagogical sun and faded into a quiet niche within teachers’ repertoires as much as the slate blackboard was in the mid-19th century and the whiteboard in late-20th century classrooms.

___________________________

*I looked at various YouTube presentations by teachers and consultants on using IWBs in lessons. Nearly all that I watched were sponsored by companies that sold the product. For readers who want such examples, see here and here. A few came from non-company sources. See here

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Feedback for Teacher Learning (David Brazer)

David Brazer is a practitioner/scholar. Teacher and high school principal, Brazer has also been a professor at George Mason and Stanford Universities. He is now Director of Professional Learning at TeachFX.

A few years ago, I met with Jamie Poskin the founder of TeachFX and former graduate student of Brazer’s at Stanford. After showing me graphic displays of teacher talk, he asked what I thought of the tool for teacher learning. I was impressed with its possibilities but at the time pointed out a series of shortcomings, especially around analyzing the kinds of talk both teachers and students engage in.

In this guest post, Brazer describes how he got involved and where the device is now. Like Brazer, I find this tool most useful for those teachers who seek self-improvement through analyzing how they teach. *

Teachers talk a lot. Hattie (2012) claims they talk 70 – 80% of class time across grade levels. In contrast, students talk very little, even when they’re talking in groups. But secondary teachers frequently tell me that students love to talk, just not about class content. The result is often an emphasis on classroom control that keeps students quiet, causing many to disengage. Students’ love of talking presents an opportunity to engage them in learning instead of controlling their behavior. What if teachers could harness students’ talk energy and see how that influences their engagement? Would teachers modify their teaching and talk less? The bet from a new reflective instructional tool called TeachFX is that they would.

            Writing a post for the ultimate tech skeptic’s blog about a tech tool for teachers feels like walking into the lion’s den. Larry has shown that efforts to change what teachers do often fail and that technology thus far has been more effective making teachers efficient than changing how they teach. A tech skeptic myself, my work with TeachFX is changing my mind. We see that frequent, objective feedback teachers can analyze quickly shows promise for altering teacher talk/student talk ratios and student engagement. Why? Because TeachFX feedback provides a rare opportunity to facilitate teacher learning.

            Research that colleagues and I published seven years ago focused on teacher learning in collaborative teams. We found that teachers rarely implemented new instructional practices proposed by colleagues. On the occasions they did, teachers had little or no evidence of these practices’ effects. Lack of classroom evidence inhibited what teachers learned from minor changes.

            Fast forward to the 2016-2017 academic year. Jamie Poskin was my intern in Stanford University’s joint degree in business and education. During his internship at a venture capital fund we frequently spoke about Jamie’s idea for a tool that would use a smart phone to audio record a teacher’s class, then separate teacher talk from student talk in a graphic display on the phone or laptop. I was intrigued, and skeptical. Then Jamie said, “Want to try the prototype in your class? What do you predict will be your percentage of student talk?” Committed to lively and informative discourse in my graduate classrooms, I wanted something like 80%, but I aimed low—40% seemed an achievable target.

            Paying this much attention to student talk might seem excessive to some, but student talk is evidence of deeper engagement and learning. Despite clear demonstration that students who are engaged more learn more (Lotan, 2014), fostering student talk remains a challenging approach for large numbers of K – 12 teachers. Consider some stark numbers: If 75% of class time is taken up with teacher talk, the other 25% consists of activities that compete with individual student talk, such as worksheets, quizzes, thinking time, transitions, and group work. Thirty students will share substantially less than 15 minutes to speak in a 90-minute class period. Given that student on-target talk is one of the surest ways to know they are engaged, students would benefit from less teacher talk and more opportunities to speak.

            TeachFX delivers vivid, objective evidence for how much teachers and their students are talking, providing impetus for teacher learning about the effects of their instruction. Recording classes regularly allows teachers to track changes in practices and their effects on student talk and engagement.

            Does the tool have the desired effects? Knowing I would see a report of my teaching, I was immediately focused on student talk in my classroom. When my recording was analyzed, Jamie returned to my office and asked, “Do you think you met your 40% student talk goal?” I hesitantly said I thought so and was much relieved when I learned that I had actually achieved 45 % student talk. Here is a snapshot of the class report I received on my laptop with explanations in call-outs:

The features of our classroom discourse were obvious and fascinated me.

            The evidence was vivid for me, but how would this work with K – 12 teachers? Would they use it? Would it change what they do in classrooms? I joined TeachFX full time last summer as Director of Professional Learning in a quest to find out. We are observing some promising trends as teachers make recordings and analyze class reports.

Although individual student talk tends to hover around 5% of class time nationally, TeachFX users typically see 15 – 20% individual student talk on their first class report. Teachers tell us their attention to student talk is heightened when they use the tool and they modify their instructional choices to encourage more student talk and engagement. Below is data from a single school with several teachers using the tool September – November. Collectively, these teachers demonstrated remarkable growth in their average amount of individual student talk over six recordings.

To date, most growth in student talk has been more modest. The district below, for example, piloted TeachFX last fall with about 20 science teachers and coaches, showing the following pattern:

Trends in these examples are encouraging, but not universal among TeachFX users. As an early start-up, we are learning the following:

  1. Turning teachers’ attention to student engagement competes with numerous other initiatives and imperatives. Maintaining their attention on student engagement is a complicated effort.
  2. Attention should be focused on transforming what teachers know about student engagement into how teachers might foster content-focused student talk in classrooms, then tracking progress
  3. Administration-level champions of student engagement powerfully focus teacher learning on generating meaningful student discourse.

Teachers are beginning to moderate their own talking to allow for more student talk and deeper engagement moment-by-moment in classrooms. TeachFX does not presume to change education overnight, but we do seem to be making progress toward helping teachers re-shape student discourse to engage their students in deeper learning.


*For full disclosure, readers need to know that I have not invested in this company (nor have plans to). Neither have I ever received any money or in-kind contributions from TeachFX, its founder, or employees.

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Lessons Learned from Technology-Powered School Reform

On June 13, 2018. I was a member of a panel held at Mission High School during San Francisco Design Week. Software developers, and others who see themselves as designers of ed-tech products that will improve schools attended this panel discussion. The moderator asked each of us to state in 7-8 minutes “what hard lessons have you learned about education that you’d like to share with the ed-tech design community?” My fellow panelists were two math teachers–one from Mission High School and the other a former teacher at Oakland High School, three product designers (one for the Chan/Zuckerberg Initiative, another for Desmos, and the lead designer for Khan Academy) who have been working in the ed-tech industry for years. In attendance were nearly 60 young (in their 20s and 30s) product designers, teachers, and ed-tech advocates .

Elizabeth Lin, a designer for Khan Academy, organized and moderated the panel. She began with a Kahoot quiz on Pokemon and Harry Potter. Audience members had the Kahoot app on their devices and entered the pin number to register for the quiz. For the record, I knew none of the answers having never played Pokemon or, as yet, cracked a Harry Potter book. 

When my turn came to speak, I looked around the room and saw that I was the oldest person in the room. Here is what I said.

Many designers and school reformers believe that in old age, pessimism and cynicism go together. Not true.

As someone who has taught high school history, led a school district, and researched the history of school reform including the use of new technologies in classrooms over the past half-century, I surely am an oldster. But I am neither a pessimist, nay-sayer, or cynic about improving public schools and teachers making changes. I am a tempered idealist who is cautiously optimistic about what U.S. public schools have done and still can do for children, the community, and the nation. Both my tempered idealism and cautious optimism have a lot to do with what I have learned over the decades about school reform especially when it comes to technology. So here I offer a few lessons drawn from these experiences over the decades.

LESSON 1

Teachers are central to all learning.

I have learned that no piece of software, portfolio of apps, or learning management system can replace teachers simply because teaching is a helping profession like medicine and psychotherapy. Helping professions are completely dependent upon interactions with patients, clients, and students for success. No improvement in physical or mental health or learning can occur without the active participation of the patient and client—and of course, the student.

Now, all of these helping professions have had new technologies applied to them. But if you believe, as I do, that teaching is anchored in a relationship between an adult and a student then relationships cannot be replaced by even the most well designed software, efficient device, or virtual reality. There is something else that software designers often ignore or forget. That is that teachers make policy every time they enter their classroom and teach.

Once she closes her classroom door, the teacher decides what the lesson is going to be, what parts of top-down policies she will put into practice in the next hour, and which parts of a new software program she will use, if at all.

Designers are supposed to have empathy for users, that is, understand emotionally what it is like to teach a crowd of students five or more hours a day and know that teacher decisions determine what content and skills enter the classroom that day. Astute ed-tech designers understand that, for learning to occur, teachers must gain student trust and respect. Thus, teachers are not technicians who mechanically follow software directions. Teaching and learning occur because of the teacher’s expertise, smart use of high-tech tools, and the creation of a classroom culture for learning that students come to trust, respect and admire.

Of course, there are a lot of things about teaching that can be automated. Administrative stuff—like attendance and grade books—can be replaced with apps. Reading and math skills and subject area content can be learned online but thinking, problem solving, and decision-making where it involves other people, collaboration, and interactions with teachers, software programs cannot replace teachers. That’s a rosy scenario that borders on fantasy.

LESSON 2

Access to digital tools is not the same as what happens in daily classroom activities.

In 1984, there were 125 students for each computer; now the ratio is around 3:1 and in many places 1:1. Because access to new technologies has spread across the nation’s school districts, too many pundits and promoters leap to the conclusion that all teachers integrate these digital tools into daily practice seamlessly. While surely the use of devices and software has gained entry into classrooms, anyone who regularly visits classrooms sees the huge variation among teachers using digital technologies.

Yes, most teachers have incorporated digital tools into daily practice but even those who have thoroughly integrated new technologies into their lessons reveal both change and stability in their teaching.

In 2016, I visited 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons.

They were hard working, sharp teachers who used digital tools as easily as paper and pencil. Devices and software were in the background, not foreground. The lessons they taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in creating playlists for students, pursuing problem-based units, and organizing the administrative tasks of teaching.

But I saw no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of a lesson. Teachers set lesson goals, designed varied activities, elicited student participation, varied their grouping of students, and assessed student understanding. None of that differed from earlier generations of experienced teachers. The lessons I observed were teacher-directed and revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades. Again, both stability and change marked teaching with digital tools.

LESSON 3

Designers and entrepreneurs overestimate their product’s power to make change and underestimate the power of organizations to keep things as they are.

Consider the age-graded school. The age-graded school (e.g., K-5, K-8, 6-8, 9-12) solved the 20th century problem of how to provide an efficient schooling to move

masses of children through public schools.  Today, it is the dominant form of school organization.

Most Americans have gone to kindergarten at age 5, studied Egyptian mummies in the 6th grade, took algebra in the 8th or 9th grade and then left 12th grade with a diploma around age 18.

The age-graded school was an organizational innovation designed to replace the one-room schoolhouse in the mid-19th century—yes, I said 19th century or almost 200 years ago. That design shaped (and continues to shape) how teachers teach and students learn.

As an organization, the age-graded school distributes children and youth by age to school “grades. It sends teachers into separate classrooms and prescribes a curriculum carved up into 36-week chunks for each grade. Teachers and students cover each chunk assuming that all children will move uniformly through the 36-weeks, and, after passing tests would be promoted to the next grade.

Now, the age-graded school dominates how public (and private) schools are organized. Even charter schools unbeholden to district rules for how to organize, have teachers teach, and students learn are age-graded as is the brand new public high school on the Oracle campus called Design Tech High School.

LESSON 4

Ed Tech designers are trapped in a trilemma of their own making.

Three highly prized values clash. One is the desire for profit—building a product that schools buy and use. Another is to help teachers, students, and schools become more efficient and effective. And the third value is that technology solves educational problems.

Many venture capitalists, founders of start-ups, and cheerleaders for high tech innovations cherish these conflicting values.

I’m not critical of these values. But when it comes to schools, product designers with these values in their search for profit and improvement underestimate both the complexity of daily teaching and the influence of age-graded schools on teaching and learning. Those who see devices and software transforming today’s schooling seldom understand schools as organizations.

I don’t believe that there are technical solutions to teaching, to running a school, or governing a district. Education is far too complex. These are the “hard” lessons I have learned.

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The Meaninglessness of the .Org Domain (Sam Wineburg and Nadav Ziv)

Many teachers, researchers, and policymakers advocate digital literacy being taught in public schools.  I was (and am) also a cheerleader. But I have to learn even more. For example, I had thought that a URL with .com meant that the link was profit-making. I am correct about that. But I had also thought that .org was non-profit and a legitimate source of information. This op-ed showed me my error.  Perhaps among those who follow this blog are others who have made the same mistake.  

Sam Wineburg (@samwineburg) is the author, most recently, of “Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone)” and the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University, where Nadav Ziv is an undergraduate majoring in international relations.”

Are today’s high school students, the ones we call “digital natives,” able to separate fact from fiction?

Not according to a survey we released last month in which 3,446 high school students across the country evaluated the trustworthiness of different websites. One such site was co2science.org, a climate-change skeptic group that claims to “disseminate factual reports and sound commentary.” Students could go anywhere on the web to investigate the site. A quick search uncovers the group’s past ties to the fossil fuel industry. But 96 percent of students never uncovered this industry connection.

Too often students’ evaluations stalled at three letters: “This page is a reliable source to obtain information from,” one wrote, “you see in the URL that it ends in .org as opposed to .com.”

The kids are wrong. Dot-org symbolizes neither quality nor trustworthiness. It’s a marketing tool that relies on a widespread but false association with credibility.

Kids aren’t the only ones misinformed. A 2012 international study found that nearly half of Americans, and larger percentages in France, Brazil and India, believed that an organization must meet “some criteria” before it could register under .org.

The dot-org domain is controlled by the Public Interest Registry, which was sold last month to Ethos Capital, a private equity firm. The three letters are marketed as “a powerful signal that your site serves a greater good — rather than just a bottom line.” It’s a claim that leads people to make errors about whom and what to trust.

Unlike dot-gov or dot-edu, which are closed to the general public, dot-org is an “open” domain. Anyone can register a dot-org without passing a character test. Even commercial sites can be dot-orgs. Craigslist — among the world’s largest ad sites — is craigslist.org. There are over 10 million dot-orgs, each of which pays roughly $10 per year to register. All you have to do to get one is fill out an online form and provide payment.

Registration fees generated $92 million in revenue for the Public Interest Registry in 2018 alone. In theory these revenues could grow much larger soon — in June, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the supervisory body that regulates the internet’s domain name system, agreed to lift price caps on dot-orgs. Still, Andy Shea, a spokesperson for the Public Interest Registry, says it plans to keep the pricing for dot-orgs low, with increases of no more than 10 percent on average a year.

In the Public Interest Registry’s latest marketing blitz, they unveiled a logo painted in “deep royal blue,” a shade they say evokes “feelings of trust, security and reliability.” They tell new customers to expect an increase in “donations, and trust for donors” when they become part of the “domain of trust.”

Noteworthy nonprofits, civic organizations and religious groups have embraced the domain — and so have a host of bad actors. All reaped the benefits of dot-org’s association with credibility.

Educational institutions unwittingly shape misperceptions around dot-orgs. Many colleges and universities, including Harvard and Northwestern, steer students in the wrong direction. They equate dot-orgs with nonprofit groups and issue no warning of the dangers lurking beneath the domain’s positive aura.

Dot-org is the favored designation of “astroturf” sites, groups that masquerade as grass roots efforts but are backed by corporate and political interests. One of these is the Employment Policies Institute, which claims to sponsor “nonpartisan research.” It was actually founded and run by the head of a public relations firm that represents the restaurant industry. Another dot-org, Americans for Prosperity Foundation, says it addresses major social problems through “broad-based grass roots outreach.” In reality, it was founded by the billionaire Koch brothers and many of its “grass roots” activists are paid.

There’s an even bigger risk to equating dot-org sites with do-gooders. Dozens of neo-Nazi, anti-L.G.B.T., anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant groups bear the dot-org seal. A random sample of a hundred organizations designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 49 percent carry the dot-org domain.

“Typically the domain name system is not an appropriate tool to address website content questions and speech issues,” said Shea, the Public Interest Registry spokesperson. “That said, if a site on a .org domain engages in specific threats of violence, we would not hesitate to take action on it under our Anti-Abuse Policy.”

A 2019 United Nations survey showed that citizens the world over have lost trust in the internet. Restoring it will take herculean efforts. The groups that control the internet’s domain system could lead the way by being honest about what these initials do and don’t represent.

The Public Interest Registry and Ethos Capital could channel some of the millions earned from the dot-org mirage to fund initiatives that educate the public on the domain’s shortcomings.

They can start by adding a bright red asterisk to their royal blue logo: “Dot-org implies nothing about an organization’s intent. Buyer Beware.”

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Teacher Platforms (Ben Williamson)

Ben Williamson is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education and the Edinburgh Futures Institute at the University of Edinburgh. His research traces the connections between educational policy, digital technologies, and practices in schools and universities. He is the author of Big Data in Education: The digital future of learning, policy and practice (Sage, 2017) and over 30 research articles and chapters.

Amazon has launched a new service allowing teachers to sell and buy education resources through its platform.

The massive multinational platform company Amazon has announced a new service allowing teachers to sell lesson plans and classroom resources to other teachers. The service, Amazon Ignite, is moving into a space where Teachers Pay Teachers and TES Teaching Resources have already established markets for the selling and buying of teaching materials. These services have reimagined the teacher as an online content producer, and Amazon has previously dabbled in this area with its Amazon Inspire ‘open educational resources’ service for free resource-sharing. But Amazon Ignite much more fully captures the teaching profession as a commercial opportunity.

The operating model of Amazon Ignite is very simple. Teachers can produce content, such as lesson plans, worksheets, study guides, games, and classroom resources, and upload them as Word, Powerpoint or PDF files using the dedicated Amazon Ignite platform. Amazon then checks the resources to ensure they don’t infringe any copyrights before they appear in the marketplace. In these ways, Amazon is now in the business of ‘shipping’ educational content across the education sector in ways that mirror its wider online commerce model.

Amazon claims the Ignite platform offers a way for teachers to ‘earn money for work you’re already doing’ by paying users 70% royalties on the resources they sell. The company itself will take 30% of the sales, plus a transaction fee of 30 cents for items under $2.99, though it also has discretion to change the price of resources including by discounting the cost to customers. This makes Amazon Ignite potentially lucrative for Amazon as well as for successful vendors on the platform.

Although Ignite is available only in the US in the first instance, the platform exemplifies the current expansion of major multinational tech companies and their platforms into the education sector. The extension of the commercial technology industry into education at all levels and across the globe is set to influence the role of the teacher and the practices of the classroom considerably over coming years.

Teacher brand ambassadors
The edtech industry, and the wider technology sector, are strongly involved in defining the characteristics and qualities of a ‘good teacher’ for the 2020s. While commercial businesses have long sought access to schools, the National Educational Policy Center (NEPC) in the US recently launched a report on teachers as ‘brand ambassadors’:

Corporate firms, particularly those with education technology products, have contracted with teachers to become so-called brand ambassadors. A brand ambassador is an individual who receives some form of compensation or perk in exchange for the endorsement of a product. Unlike celebrity endorsers, teachers can be thought of as ‘micro-influencers’ who give firms access to their network of social influence.

Teacher brand ambassadors, as well as ‘product mentors’, ‘champions’ and ‘evangelists’, have become significant edtech marketing figures. They often use social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, to promote and model the use of specific educational technologies. They might even be involved in the development and testing of new software features and upgrades, as well expenses-paid trips to conferences, summits and trade events where they are expected to attend as representatives of the brand.

The NEPC reported that teacher brand ambassador programs raise significant ethical issues and conflicts of interest, while delivering return on investment to producers when their product is introduced into classrooms and students are exposed to their brand.

As the big tech firms have closed in on education, they have begun to merge the marketing role of the brand ambassador into a professional development role–such as Google’s Certified Educator program. Amazon’s AWS Educate program enables whole institutions to become AWS Educate members, in effect bringing whole institutions into its branded environment. The ‘perks’ include providing educators access to AWS technology, open source content for their courses, training resources, and a community of cloud evangelists, while also providing students credits for hands-on experience with AWS technology, training, and content.

Platform gig teachers
Amazon Ignite, however, represents the next-stage instantiation of the brand ambassador and the teacher as micro-influencer. On Amazon Ignite, teachers are not contracted as platform ambassadors, but invited to become self-branded sellers in a competitive marketplace, setting up shop as micro-edubusinesses within Amazon’s global platform business. Without becoming official brand ambassadors, teachers become gig workers engaging in market exchanges mediated by Amazon’s platform. This in turn requires them to become micro-influencers of their own brands.

So who are the teachers who participate in the Amazon Ignite educational gig economy? Amazon Ignite is ‘invitation-only’ and as such makes highly consequential decisions over the kinds of content and resources that can be purchased and used. This might be understood as high-tech ‘hidden curriculum’ work, with Amazon employees working behind the scenes to make selections about what counts as worthwhile resources and knowledge to make available to the market.

It is not really clear that Amazon Ignite will even empower existing classroom teachers to become content producers and sellers. A brief review of the current ‘featured educators’ on Amazon’s Digital Education Resources page gives an indication of the kind of invited participants who might thrive on Ignite. Most of these appear as established micro-edubusinesses with well-developed brands and product ranges to sell. Amazon offers extensive advice to potential vendors about how to package and present their resources to customers.

[The list of ‘featured educators’ on Amazon Digital Education Resources is at:  https://www.amazon.com/b/ref=dervurl?node=17987895011]

The featured educator Blue Brain Teacher, for example, is the branded identity of a former private education curriculum adviser and Montessori-certified educator, who focuses strongly on ‘brain-based’ approaches including ‘Right-Brain training’. An established vendor on Teachers Pay Teachers, the Blue Brain Teacher also has a presence on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, is a Google Certified Educator, and officially certified to offer training on Adobe products.

Another featured educator, Brainwaves Instruction, also has a glossy website and existing web store of printable resources, a blog featuring thoughts and lesson ideas on mindfulness, growth mindset, and the adolescent brain, and all the social media accounts to amplify the brand.

These and many of the other featured educators on the Amazon Digital Education Resources store give some indication of how the Amazon Ignite market will appear. Many are existing TpT users, active and prolific on social media, have their own well-designed and maintained websites, write blogs, and are highly attentive to their brand identity. Some, such as Education with an Apron, are not limited to the selling of educational resources, but have their own teacher-themed fashion lines such as T-shirts and tote bags (‘I’m the Beyonce of the classroom’). These are teacher gig workers in an increasingly platformized education sector.

Amazon Ignite, at least at this early stage, also seems to be overwhelmingly feminized. Most of its featured educators present themselves through the aesthetics of lifestyle media and family values, as examples such as The Classroom Nook indicate. It suggests the reproduction of a specifically gendered construction of the teacher.

This is balanced, in many cases, with sophisticated social media-style iconography, and significant investment in various technology industry programs. Erintegration, for example, shares resources, lesson plans, reviews, and tips for using iPads, Google Apps, and other devices ‘to engage digital learners in all curriculum areas’, and is already involved in other Amazon programs:

Erintegration is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Erintegration is sometimes provided free services, goods, affiliate links and/or compensations in exchange for an honest review.  All thoughts and options are my own and are not influenced by the company or its affiliates.

Not all the featured educators are single individuals either. Clark Creative Education is a team of educators, authors, designers and editors, whose founder is a ‘top-milestone author on Teachers Pay Teachers’. Amazon Ignite is, then, not simply empowering practising teachers to ‘earn money for work you’re already doing’ but is actively incentivizing the expansion of a market of educational startup content producers.

Children can even be content providers. According to the Terms and Conditions, ‘A parent or guardian of a minor can open a Program account and submit the minor’s Resource-Related Content as the Content Provider’. Given the role of young celebrity micro-influencers on social media, it is possible to speculate here that school children could also establish positions as ‘edu-preneurial’ content producers.

Platform classrooms
All in all, Amazon Ignite is encouraging teachers to see themselves as empowered and branded-up personal edubusinesses operating inside Amazon’s commerce platform. It is easy to see the attraction in the context of underfunded schools and low teacher pay. But it also brings teachers into the precarious conditions of the gig economy. These educators are gig workers and small-scale edu-startup businesses who will need to compete to turn a profit. Rather than making select teachers into brand ambassadors for its platform, Amazon is bringing teacher-producers and education startups on to its platform as content producers doing the labour of making, uploading and marketing resources for royalty payments. It expands platform capitalism to the production, circulation and provision of classroom resources, and positions Amazon as an intermediary between the producers and consumers in a new educational market.

By making selections about which educators or businesses can contribute to Ignite, Amazon is also making highly significant and opaque decisions about the kind of educational content made available to the teacher market. The criteria for inclusion on Amazon Ignite are unclear. What kind of educational standards, values, or assumptions underpin these choices? Curriculum scholars have long talked about the ways aspects of culture and knowledge are selected for inclusion in school syllabi, textbooks and resources. Amazon is now performing this function at a distance through its selection of educational content creators and market vendors.

Over time, Amazon Ignite is likely to produce hierarchies of vendors, since Amazon claims the Ignite resources will show up in search results. This raises the prospect of algorithmic recommendations based on a combination of vendor popularity and users’ existing purchases—a ‘recommended for you’ list tailored to teachers’ search and purchase histories. The Terms and Conditions specify that Amazon ‘will have sole discretion in determining all marketing and promotions related to the sale of your Resources through the Program and may, without limitation, market and promote your Resources by permitting prospective customers to see excerpts of your Resources in response to search queries’.

Moreover, Amazon claims ‘sole ownership and control of all data obtained from customers and prospective customers in connection with the Program’, thereby gaining the advantage of using buyer and seller data to potentially further maximize its platform profitability.

Amazon Ignite anticipates an increasingly close alignment of classrooms and platforms in coming years. ‘As with social media platforms in the 2000s, educational platform providers will be working to expand the scope of their “walled gardens” to encompass as many user practices as possible’, argue the authors of a recent article outlining likely trends in education technology in the 2020s. Along with Amazon’s ongoing attempts to embed its Alexa voice assistant in schools and universities, Amazon Ignite has now further expanded the walls of Amazon’s huge commerce platform to enclose the education sector. Amazon is inciting educators to become platform teachers whose labour in platform classrooms is a source of profit under platform capitalism.

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