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Category: Technology

Last night I watched the CBS Evening News 30 minutes before it was to air on TV locally. I watched it on my phone. Without advertising.

Last week I called the Automobile Association of America to ask for the best route for driving through the San Francisco Bay Area. There was a long pause on the other end of the line. Finally a woman’s voice said, “Do you have GPS?”

Now there was a long pause on my end of the phone. “Well, yes, I do have GPS on my smart phone. But I was actually looking for a TripTik.”

(For those of you under the age of 30, a TripTik was a map that AAA provided members that contained a hand-drawn route that took into account the weather, traffic and road construction. You requested it by phone and it was mailed to you several weeks later.)

Another long pause on the AAA end of the call. “We not longer provide TripTiks. We do have a free Smart Phone app.”

Ah. Technology. Sure. Even from CBS and AAA.

What do these two events have in common? Both show how two rather conservative organizations have made some remarkable use of technology. Ten years ago it was the exception not the rule when technology was driving big corporate innovation. Now the rule seems to be that you adopt and innovate or die.

And while we used to think that companies were “using” technology, it now appears that technology is driving companies. If you aren’t on Facebook, don’t have positive reviews on Yelp, can’t video stream your content on an iPad and can’t be followed on Twitter, you’re headed for the backwaters.

Which brings me to education and particularly K-12 education. We have a tendency to want to, maybe even need to, twist and bend technology to fit our existing model of instruction. Jam it in there until it seems to fit so I can still stand in front of the class as I teach. There seems to be a general fear that if I give sway to technology, all that I hold near and dear about educational structures and paradigms will disappear.

It is as if the whole world has decided to commute by bicycle and some of us are trying to drive our SUVs on the bike paths.

By the way, AAA, long an opponent of cycling, now provides roadside assistance for bike riders.



Ten years ago the administrators and a select group of district office staff each received cell phones paid for by the district. At the end of each month the cell phone users trotted into the district office to pay for any personal calls made using the phone. Since almost no one had their own cell phone back then, this awkward situation continued for some time. Eventually as cell phones became more ubiquitous and staff began purchasing better, more full-function phones for personal use, the district dropped the cell phones from the budget. It didn’t make sense to carry two mobile phones.

Fast forward ten years and we’re almost to the same decision point with teachers and computers. As lines continue to blur among desktop computers, laptops, mini-laptops, iPads and smart phones, it doesn’t make sense for some teachers to have to set aside their personal device to use an older, slower, less functional desktop when they come to work. Many of the younger teachers have balked at using the teacher classroom computer and have asked to be allowed to use their personal laptops. Using the personal device means they carry everything on one machine or have access to everything from one machine.

Because of limited technical support and the obvious budget woes of school districts across the country, it isn’t realistic to think that a district would have the resources to purchase and support a variety of devices running a wide range of operating systems. And since cloud computing seems, at least for the near future, the direction technology is moving, it makes sense to let teachers buy and use what they are comfortable with, give them easy access to the Internet and then step out of their way.

Maybe, at least initially, each teacher could receive a stipend ($200) to apply to a personal device. This would save the district about $500 a computer that could be applied to other technologies like projectors, document cameras, smart boards, student computers or just used to offset layoffs and other reductions.

The same rationale could be applied to high school students. Allowing students to bring to school personal devices that they could actually use as part of their education would make the school a place where technology is useful instead of the place where personal technology devices are banned.

There are two key points here: 1) School Districts need to give up the idea that we can control when, where and how teachers and students use technology; and 2) It is critical that school districts begin to stretch the definition of what school is, when it happens and where it happens. Right now some school districts are being dragged, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the real world use of technology where desktop computers, computer labs and scheduled times to use technology are outdated.

For most educators, when asked the question “What do you need to make technology more useful?”, the answer is often “more computers”. But sometimes more computers used in the same old way isn’t necessarily better. Let’s look at a typical high school of 1500 students and three available computer labs. With class sizes of 35 students, there would be approximately 40 classes per period. The three labs would accommodate less than 8 percent of the students. If the school had the room to build three more labs at a cost of about $50,000 not including the wiring and furniture,only 15% of the students would be served.

Spend another $100,000 for six more labs and you’re still serving less than a third of the students each period. Of course, teachers might not need to take students to the labs daily. So  assuming that each teacher would agree to take  her class into the lab just once a week, three labs would serve  less than 40% of the student body. And the real problem with this way of using technology is that computers aren’t used in a real world sense. You and I don’t use our computer from 1:45 to 3:15 on Thursday. We use the computer when we need to use it. If we want to construct meaningful learning, then we have to come up with better ways for our students to interact with technology in meaningful ways.

So let’s try a bit of creative thinking and not assume that more desktop computers sitting in more labs is the answer. So, for a few minutes, turn off the voice in your head that says “that won’t work” and let’s look at some out-of-the-box ideas:

1. Free and Reduced Computers: We do it for lunch, why not for technology? Let’s require that every student own a computer. Those that can’t afford a computer can get a reduced price on a computer. Those who still can’t afford it will get a free one. We’ll use the same form we do for free and reduced lunches. Computers could costs as little as $100 each. If we took 1/100 of the money spent in fighting wars in the middle east.  . . .well that’s another discussion altogether.

2. Encourage Cell Phone Use: The battle to keep cell phones out of schools, or at least turned off, has been lost. Wave the white flag and surrender. Since most students already have these little hand-held computers, let’s take advantage of them. If we don’t somehow blend public education with how students use technology when they are not in school, we’ll be the losers. Let students text homework assignments, use phones as student response systems, and, for smart phone owners, let them look things up on the Internet or post answers to your WordPress site. What about equity? See #1 above.

3. Change the School Day: If we’re preparing students for life as adults, let’s make sure they develop the skills to deal with complex issues. To do that we’ve got to stop compartmentalizing everything. Project based learning works at all grade levels and it allows greater integration of technology than breaking subject matter into finite pieces. Students in grades 9 and 10 might be in an all morning integrated program where science, language arts and math are blended  together with technology around social justice issues. Tenth and eleventh graders are in a similar program around other core content. Computers and other technology would be available for individuals or small teams depending on need, not the time of day.

4. Make the beneficiaries of a Good Education Pay for Part of it: If local employers want a well-educated work force, then make them pay for part of it. Sure we all pay taxes, but let’s up the ante a bit by starting a “buy one get one free” program. Let’s match dollar for dollar contributions by local companies to purchase individual computers for students. The One Laptop per Child Foundation has it right.

So what do YOU think? What ideas can you throw at the wall to see if they stick? What among the 4 ideas above makes any sense and what is off the mark? Any and all ideas are welcome. Comment away and let’s start the conversation. Here’s where more is actually better.

There has been a dearth of research supporting the effectiveness of interactive white boards in public schools.  Recently published research might support the use of white board technology. However, there is a question about the relationship between the researcher and the brand of white board used in the study and there is a big question about how well variables were controlled.  An even bigger question is this:  How much does the use of high-end, razzle-dazzle technology play in motivating students to show up and pay attention and how much does the equipment actually mmsinfluence learning? Is it just enough to have students in their seats and paying attention to justify technology purchases? If it is just the glitz of seeing and using the equipment that works, maybe we can get away with purchasing something less expensive than at $7,000 interactive white board.

Or perhaps there is another variable researchers are overlooking: the classroom teacher. I was visiting a fourth grade classroom last week and observed a teacher implementing a 20 minute math lesson. She had her students eating out of the palm of her hand. Yes, she was using a document camera as part of the lesson; but it was background to what was really happening. She was getting student responses from all over the room. She brought her students to a crescendo of excitement one minute and then was whispering the next with her students listening in rapt attention. Students were receiving positive affirmations from the teacher and from classmates throughout the lesson. It was amazing to watch. And the technology hummed along in the background.

Selecting technologies we know help children learn and technologies that reinforce standards and district goals makes sense. But we can’t minimize the importance of the instructor and appropriate  instructional practices. No technology can completely replace a competent facilitator of learning whether it is in a traditional classroom or virtual world.

Maybe we can learn something from the behavior modification movement of the 70’s where advocates trumpeted the benefit of instant gratification as a way of improving student behavior. If we are going to adopt expensive educational technology without clearly doing our homework on its effectiveness, we might be better off spending $4.59 on a bag of M&Ms.