Friday, January 21, 2011

The National Education Technology Plan - Final Reflections and the Way Ahead

It was important to me to really read through this plan so that not only I could see what the future holds, but also to make sense of what kind of policy is being put together in the federal ed tech department. I'm going to once again state the biases I had going into this process (had these on the first post, but want to make sure they're here too):

My biases:
  • I think standardized testing and standardized anything is harmful to students. Anything that promotes rote learning, filling in worksheets, spitting out simple facts without digging deeper is something I will naturally push back against.
  • I believe teachers are an integral part of the classroom process and should be given the freedom and support to deliver classroom instruction and create their classroom environment how they see fit. Teachers are the foremost experts in the education system because they are firmly grounded in the everyday reality of classroom life.
  • I firmly believe that in the 21st century we need to be pushing our students toward collaborating, creating, and publishing their work online.
  • I have qualms with the idea of "scaling up" reform. In other words- taking something that appears to be working well in one school and stamping it on top of other schools. It rarely works, mainly because the reason the first school was successful is not simply because of the program they were running- it's because of the people running the program. People/educators make the difference, not templates.
  • After reading Diane Ravitch's excellent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I have a much more realistic and cynical eye on any type of federal policy.
Here are links to my previous posts on each section, if you're interested in more thoughts of each:

Here are my overall thoughts on the National Education Technology Plan...

The Good
  • I felt that section three on teaching was the most powerful and persuasive. The model of teaching as connected practice is a good one. That is definitely a direction that we need to move in and technology should play a huge role in making that happen.
  • This plan calls for putting computing devices into the hands of students and puts forth ideas for making it happen in cash-strapped times (including letting students bring their own devices to school)
  • While I'm skeptical of rhetoric from federal policymakers, I did appreciate that this plan calls for more individualized learning and technology being a driving force behind making this happen
  • There were good and helpful case studies throughout. These were often the strongest parts of the plan- multiple times in each section there was a case study that highlighted a real example of the piece they were presenting. These were helpful to see notions of what the writers felt were exemplars of the pieces of the puzzle they were trying to put together.
  • This plan promotes transparency in budgeting processes. I think this is a huge piece in terms of keeping policymakers honest and showing folks exactly where money is being spent is always a good idea.
The Bad
  • Overall, the feeling I got from this plan is that it devalues teachers and what great things are already happening in classrooms. When it spoke of assessment, it made it seem like formative assessments are something that just don't happen in schools- that the federal government needs to come in and tell teachers how and when to do formative assessments. But good teachers are always....always doing formative assessment. That doesn't mean it is ever entered into some unwieldy data system, but it is taking place. I felt that teachers were also devalued when the plan promoted the use of an integrated system that tracked these assessments, told students what they should be trying next, re-introduced concepts, etc. This is what good teachers already do, and I don't like how this is put forth as some sort of novel idea.
  • I really don't like that there isn't a stronger push in this plan for more curricular support for teachers in their endeavors to utilize technology more effectively with students. I think this is a very large disconnect- teachers simply need help to not only get started using technology with their kids but also to maintain it. I've watched it many times- if a teacher does not have support for use, the technology does not get used. There needs to be a certified person in every school that specializes in helping teachers and students use the technology at their disposal effectively.
  • Having looked at the authors of the plan, the vast majority are professors. Out of the 15, it appears that only one is a classroom teacher. I am not saying that these folks are unqualified, but what I AM saying is that this is obviously a trend in education policy for the past ten years (and probably beyond, of which I've not researched yet)- not including classroom teachers in the process. In my opinion, their voice and STUDENT voices should be the most important and valued ones in the room. There is definitely a need for professors, superintendents, and other community members to have input, but from what I've seen- when policy is being created, it is being created by folks that simply don't walk the walk in a K-12 classroom. This is how we get things like "All children will be 100% proficient by 2014". And I'm disappointed that this trend continues in this plan.
The Ugly
  • This plan definitely has some great ideas in it and some good vision. But a lot of the best pieces are going to be naturally overridden or completely twisted by Race to the Top. The push for more individualized, differentiated instruction flies in the face of the increased standardized testing that RTTT promotes. It makes no sense to instruct for the individual and test them all the same way.
  • I've already seen the future of RTTT and this plan in my county, and in practice it looks pretty ugly. Formative assessments that check student progress regularly so that teachers know exactly where they stand sounds great, right? But here's the reality in my county (and I'd wager many others soon, if not already). These assessments will be rote, multiple choice format. They will be delivered online. What does this mean in practice? 1) Our computers will increasingly be test taking devices instead of tools for creation, collaboration, and publication. 2) assessments will not be competency-based. 3) The focus of these assessments will be to get better and better at taking the BIG standardized test at the end of the year, which means more narrowed curriculum and more teaching to the test instead of learning. Those are the real outcomes here. And I'm already seeing it happen in my county.
Moving Forward
So, where does that leave me, and us, moving forward? I will say that our voices need to be heard as these initiatives are rolled out so that we can help keep the focus on learning. I'd say that the knowledge of what this plan entails and how it might play out is a crucial step in affecting how it impacts our schools and local situations. The more knowledge you have about what is coming down the pike, the more aware you can be in order to help shape implementation. I can say for sure that now that I've read and reflected on this plan, I will feel much more comfortable sitting down with admin in both my building and county to discuss how this affects teachers and students. That right there is gold, in my book, and I hope these posts help others to be able to find a solid voice as well!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dissecting the NETP: Part Six- R&D: Innovate and Scale

This is part six of a new blog series where I want to take a closer look at the newly released National Education Technology Plan. I outline my plan for this series in this post.

Part Six- R&D: Innovate and Scale

Section Goal: None Stated

This final section deals with developing and implementing an R&D program for the department of Ed. It's goals would be similar to the defense department's DARPA program- trying out new techniques and practices and then scaling up successes and moving away from failed efforts. I must honestly say that anytime I see the phrase "scale up" in education reform, the hairs on my neck tingle. I just don't like it because I don't think it really works in education. It would be nice if it did and our lives would be a whole lot easier, but I don't think there is a solution that you can spread out and fit every school, every teacher, every student into. The main reason I think this is because the reason educational programs succeed are not because of the programs- it's because of the people leading it and keeping it going every day. And you can't scale those people... With that said, here's some thoughts on what I liked or didn't like about this section:

What I liked
  • Not much. I think the idea of an R&D department within the Department of Ed is interesting and has potential if done right....but...
What I didn't like
  • ...I have little faith that the Department of Education could get it right. This is the department that gives us No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. This is the department that cheers on the mass firing of teachers, tying teacher pay to high stakes tests, and is led by yet another person who has never stepped foot in a classroom (the only Secretary of Education that has ever been an actual K-12 teacher was Terrel Bell, who served 25 years ago...). Here are pieces from the NETP that help to add to my distrust:
  • One of the main goals is listed as "Transferring existing and emerging technology innovations from such sectors as consumer, business, and entertainment into education" (p. 75). This isn't that simple. You can't take business, consumer, and entertainment innovations and just plop them into a school system and expect it to work. Plus this is incredibly vague- what innovations? Are we talking about business practices here? What are the downsides involved with introducing capitalist and market forces into a public institution that is supposed to serve all equally (insert joke here about what we can learn in education from Snooki)?
  • The idea of an R&D department is interesting, but the comparison to DARPA unnerves me a bit. I mean- if the defense department tests out a new missile or jet and it fails miserably, crashing and burning...well it was just a missile. But our schools are filled with kids who need an education. What if the idea fails miserably? Well, now you have a bunch of kids who lack an education at the most crucial point in their lives. And something tells me that the guinea pigs for these types of research projects would be inner city/high poverty kids, just the ones that can't afford to lose a year or two.
  • Look at the wording here on page 76: this department should "bring together the best minds and organizations to collaborate on high-risk/high-gain education R&D projects. It should aim for radical, orders-of-magnitude improvements by envisioning the impact of innovations and then working backward to identify the fundamental breakthroughs required to make them possible." Does this scare anyone else? High-risk education R&D projects? What are we trying to boil kids down to, here?
  • The plan calls on the identification of "grand challenge problems"- which are problems that establish a community of experts to work together towards finding a solution. I agree with this, but think the focus is off. As soon as I read this, my mind went to poverty. Why can't we focus these efforts on what I believe is the single largest issue in education as well as society in general? Instead of attacking the effects (poorly educated students), why not attack the true cause? Now, that's not to say that our education system cannot be vastly improved, but I firmly believe that as long as poverty is such a problem in our country, the education reform fight is always going to be a steep, uphill battle that may never be "won".
  • The plan calls this the "ultimate grand challenge problem in education" - "Establishing an integrated, end-to-end real-time system for managing learning outcomes and costs across our entire education system at all levels." (p. 77). That's it? THAT is the ultimate problem in education? My head is spinning at the disconnect here. I can't fathom how this document, with some really solid ideas throughout, can come up with this as the ultimate problem in education.
  • When talking about this integrated system, here is how they describe this grand/wonderful innovation: "Design and validate an integrated system that provides real-time access to learning experiences tuned to the levels of difficulty and assistance that optimize learning for all learners and that incorporates self-improving features that enable it to become increasingly effective through interaction with learners." (p. 78). You mean like....a teacher? Is this plan really proposing that we spend millions upon millions of dollars to provide experiences for students that teachers already provide, every day?
This final section really did surprise me. Maybe I was naive as I read all of the earlier sections, but I didn't see this coming. I think this section is filled with poor assumptions, misguided goals, and, frankly- scary rhetoric for teachers. I believe in the opposite of this section- I don't think we should be doing high-risk research on our students, I don't think we can effectively scale up education reforms, and I don't believe we need to create a data/learning system that would end up doing what a good teacher already does. And I don't trust the federal government to touch any of this, given their recent track record of reform.

The next post on this will be my final thoughts on the plan. I'm glad to finally have finished reading it and, frankly, I'm looking forward to getting back to some less heavy topics in this space!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dissecting the NETP: Part Five- Productivity: Redesign and Transform

This is part five of a new blog series where I want to take a closer look at the newly released National Education Technology Plan. I outline my plan for this series in this post.

Part Five: Productivity - Redesign and Transform

Section Goal: Our education system at all levels will redesign processes and structures to take advantage of the power of technology to improve learning outcomes while making more efficient use of time, money, and staff.

This section is titled with the somewhat ambiguous "productivity" tag. As I read through it, I realized that this is the catch-all section- there seem to be ideas in here that they couldn't really fit neatly into the preceding sections so they flopped them in here. Not to say that they're bad ideas, necessarily- they just don't cohere neatly.

What I liked
  • The document points out right off the bat that reforming education is not really about pouring more money into the system. I agree. It's not about adding more money- it's about spending it more wisely and more focused on the right things (in my opinion, not textbooks, test prep, or testing materials and departments).
  • There is a clear and consistent call for increased transparency, especially in the budget process in schools and counties. It correctly states that many districts have areas of spending/funding that are labeled much too broadly - "instructional support", for example. They make the case that there should be clear, transparent methods of showing how money is broken down and spent within school systems. I'm 100% on board with this- the more transparent, the better. There shouldn't be secrets in these areas and all constituents have a right to know how money is being spent and have the ability to question priorities and programs being funded.
  • There is a call for districts to hire technology directors that have curriculum and instruction backgrounds. I believe firmly in this shift.
  • There is a neat little case study on page 65 that I found to be a good use of data collection in schools. It outlines a data system in the state of Michigan that allows educators to collect data that can help them identify students that are at high risk of dropping out. They then use this data to provide support to these students in order to keep them in school. Now...I'm not going to get into all my feelings about high school dropout programs (the #1 reason kids drop out is because school is boring yet so many programs focus on all the peripheral reasons instead of working hard to make school more interesting and relevant....but I digress), but I do find this type of data collection a positive thing for kids.
  • The plan makes a point I hadn't considered in a while- that we need to be working on useful metrics that show how technology is being used in schools (or not used). It states that "Very little information on how technology is actually used to support teaching, learning, and assessment is collected and communicated systematically." (p. 67) I agree with this statement and the first spot I'd look to gather this type of data is from the students themselves. It would be great if every teacher would simply poll their students on how well they feel technology is being used in their classroom (teachers should be asking students to evaluate all other aspects of their teaching and classroom environment too). The simple asking of students can provide a lot of insight to teachers, administrators, students, and parents alike.
  • The plan advocates moving away from standardization in the classroom and in assessment procedures. It talks at length about the positives surrounding competency-based assessments, where students have to SHOW their proficiency. It denounces using seat-time as a method of showing proficiency. It denounces how we organize students by age rather than interest or ability level. This plan says a lot of things that are very progressive in these regards- that we need to move away from this traditional/industrial model of school. But stay tuned in "What I didn't like" to hear more about my feelings on this- they're talking out of both sides of their mouth...
What I didn't like
  • This plan talks out of both sides of it's mouth, or at least those that put it together have little to no input or effect on actual federal and state policy that dictates many of the conditions this plan seeks to transform. On one hand, they decry the rigid organization of schools and on the other hand they praise a charter school that has significantly lengthened the school day / seat time each student is required to attend. It talks about how learning needs to be individualized and timely, how "it no longer makes sense to give every 13-year-old the same set of 45-minute American history lessons" (p. 68), but it makes sense to test them all the same way? And then label schools, districts, and now teachers based on standardized tests that allow the linguistic and logical-mathematical kids to shine and the others to wallow? It leaves a sour taste in my mouth when policy writers or politicians say one thing they believe and then their actions completely undermine what they supposedly believe in.
  • This plan seeks to extend learning time. As in, longer school days. I'm in the camp of- let's fix the time we spend with kids now, before we start asking them to stay longer.
For a catch-all section, it had some good ideas. But they lacked focus and were disjointed. They didn't all have to do with productivity and that made the whole section read like a hodge podge. As I approach the final (tiny) section on R&D, I can feel my overall thoughts on the plan starting to form. Stay tuned- I should be able to catch up on those last two posts soon!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Adding customized looks to your Google Form directions

The directions box in Google Forms is pretty straightforward. But sometimes it would be nice to add some layout changes such as bold, centered text, etc. I was just showing my principal how to do a few of these tricks, so I thought I'd write up a little post on how to add some customized looks to the directions of your Google Forms. Remember- these tips only apply to the directions area of the form- the actual questions themselves are not customizable with code.

While trying to add this post with directions, things got I decided just to make a short video instead (put it to full screen and HD to see the codes clearly):

So there you have it- some basic codes to help spruce up your directions section of your Google Forms (at least until they add this functionality- which has to be on the horizon, right?).

Link to more html codes to play with if you'd like

Link to site to easily copy/paste html color codes, as described in the video

Here's a paper copy of the same directions that you can use to copy/paste code from.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Dissecting the NETP - Part Four: Infrastructure- Access and Enable

This is part four of a new blog series where I want to take a closer look at the newly released National Education Technology Plan. I outline my plan for this series in this post.

Part Four: Infrastructure - Access and Enable

Section Goal: All students and educators will have access to a comprehensive infrastructure for learning when and where they need it.

So this section interested me before reading because we are in very difficult economic times in the public school system, and infrastructure is a spot where it's difficult to improve without spending cash. I was also very interested to see how much of the human element the writers would build into their infrastructure plan- I personally believe this is the most ignored piece of all educational technology spending- the curricular support for educational technology. I've seen many systems spend a ton of money on hardware, software, tech support, and great tools...but hardly anything on the types of teacher leaders that need to be in every building, helping their peers actually USE all of this great new equipment effectively... So those were my main focuses going into this section.

What I liked
  • The plan promotes the idea of "Broadband Everywhere". Their definition of this includes "abundant wireless coverage in and out of school buildings. 'Adequate' means enough bandwidth to support simultaneous use by all students and educators anywhere in the building and the surrounding campus to routinely use the Web, multimedia, and collaboration software." (pp 52-53) I love this goal. It's definitely a noble pursuit, to enable the kind of wireless coverage where all students anywhere on the campus can be working at the same time.
  • The plan outlines the "National Broadband Plan" from the FCC last March, 2010. This is some of the nuts and bolts, behind the scenes stuff that needs to happen for the above vision to become a reality. It (partly) focuses on E-Rate procedures (more info here about E-Rate). It pushes for raising the E-Rate camp to account for inflation, allowing community members to make use of E-Rate funded connections outside school hours, and streamlining the application process for funds. Since E-Rate funds are a large part of many school systems' infrastructure funds, all of these changes would be very helpful in not only getting more money to pump into infrastructure, but also opening up connectivity to the community at large, something I'm very much in favor of.
  • Promotion of a device for each student, whether provided by the school or brought from home. I'm glad the NETP promotes this, because I feel like this is the natural direction we're heading in our schools- going 1:1 in a blended way, where some devices are brought by students and some are provided for those in need. With a lot of services moving to the cloud, this is more and more doable and realistic from a management perspective. Here at my school, we have multiple devices running at the same time on our network- PC's, Macs, iPod Touch's, netbooks, iPads.... the network supports these devices concurrently and our filter is web based instead of client based, so we're covered under CIPA. This is the way things are heading, and it's a good thing.
  • The document, on page 60, encourages the use of students as technical resources. This is a component I've long believed in and I think needs amplified as much as possible- it's a great way to provide authentic, service-based learning for kids that helps a ton when managing a large amount of technical equipment (like in a 1:1 school).
  • This quote about the difference in technical support in school systems as opposed to businesses: "The number of computers per computer technician in K-12 education is estimated at 612 compared with 150 computers per technician in private industry." (p. 59) What does this mean? We have computers/technology that is down more often, for longer periods of time in public schools. This isn't news to anyone in the schools themselves, but I wonder how many front offices and school boards understand this fact and how it impacts what we try to do daily?
What I didn't like
  • The graphic on page 59 is probably the worst and most confusing graphic I've ever seen in a major publication... All I wrote next to it is...huh?? (about 3/4 down the page here).
  • Once again, the piece I was hoping for is at the end and way too short and shallow. In the very last section, at a grand total of less than a page, is the piece about "Human Talent and Scaling Expertise." (pp 59-60). And half of this tiny section focuses on technicians. It's my opinion that this is a huge issue. If we want to have technology be an important piece of instruction, then we need to have a leader in every building working with teachers and supporting them in this endeavor. For those of us working in schools, we know that this is a critical component! The human element in the educational technology business has to shift away from a focus on tech support towards instructional support. Obviously, we still need to have a strong technical support system, but we're not going to make the jump to the next level of technology integration if we don't have the instructional support component. The fact that this piece is not considered a weighty piece of the infrastructure puzzle in this document is troubling to me. And when it IS mentioned, we see the problem addressed with "innovative approaches to staffing in schools" (p. 60). In other words- you all figure this one out and by the way, you ain't getting any funding for it.
Despite the above misgivings about the light regard given to the instructional support aspect, I thought this section mostly had it's head in the right place- broadening access, changing E-Rate policies to help grease the wheels, offering connectivity to the community at large, and allowing students to bring in their own devices to help cut costs moving forward. I just hope we don't continue further down the path that I've seen some school districts on- a lot of great equipment being maintained very well, but no teachers actually using it (or using it in teacher-directed ways). Without instructional support in each building, our visions for success become a lot foggier.