Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Budget Cuts, Disruptive Innovation, and a Solution for Public Schools

Two years ago, when my art teacher position at an alternative high school was looking like it was slated for the budget cut slating block, I started to grow concerned about the financial future of public education and what it means for the realities of the classroom. We have seen the cost of educating a child rise every year faster than the rate of funding for schools. As a result every year we see class sizes increase, more programs cut, and less money for classroom budgets. It was about that time that I was turned on to the concept of disruptive innovation in education made popular by the Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen.

That spring my art teacher position indeed was cut due to no fault of my own. When I started looking for work, uneasy about the future of our traditional public schools and unsure about the long-term stability of online or virtual schools I decided the most intelligent option was to diversify my professional activities. I took a full-time job as a technology integration specialist for a traditional brick and mortar school and a part-time position with an online charter school.

Over the past year I heard the same old budget issues raised at my full-time day job. There are warnings that programs might be cut and "extras" will need to be examined scrupulously before we spend the money on them. At the same time my online position was thriving. By the end of the year, evidently, my class numbers for the virtual school had grown to where my position was nearly full-time there as well. By fall of this year the virtual school had to split my position, giving a full-time position to the person they hired to take over my bustling classes. Then, just last week I saw that the Oregon branch of Connections Academy became the single largest high school in that state. What is going on here?

The cost of educating a child in an online setting is exponentially less than that of educating a child in a brick and mortar school. With a virtual school you don't have to pay for building expenses, one teacher can manage a lot more students because they don't have the same classroom management issues to deal with and most mundane tasks can be aggregated. Personalization of learning is much easier to do in the online school as well.

Now, not every student is equally suited for online learning. I strongly believe there is still a place for the consistent face to face interaction that brick and mortar school provide. To be successful online, a student must have the self-motivation to work through assignments and lessons without a teacher present and must have a positive support structure at home. Students who lack one or both of these things would benefit more from a learning environment where this kind of motivation can be provided.

My growing concern:

In every scenario I see, especially with the current economic crisis, doom is spelled for the fate of traditional educational settings. If we keep going the way we have been going students are going to leave to enroll in virtual schools and class sizes, programs deemed "non-essential" in the traditional school will be cut and those who teach "essential" courses will see enormous class sizes. Why don't we see a stronger push against virtual learning from our traditional schools? I think teachers are tired of fighting for increased funding, they don't see a solution to fight for, and many see the benefits virtual learning bring. The only argument against virtual schools that I hear over and over again is over a concern for lack of social interaction. But we need to examine and ask ourselves, "What are schools for?" There is the Jeffersonian idea that schools are supposed to prepare students to be members of our society and then there is the Hamiltonian idea that schools are to prepare students for their careers. Neither aim is greatly addressed with the issue of social interaction. And to address this issue, my online students know each other, they have friends, and their social groups outside of school more positively fulfill this role than brick and mortar schools ever did. So what about the fate of traditional schools?

Doomsday Scenario:

  1. We are seeing more and more foreclosures on homes, taxes on which are the source of public school funding.
  2. Housing crisis, coupled with the subsequent economic meltdown means very little money for schools.
  3. Only Language Arts, Science, Math, and Social Studies are left after cut backs.
  4. Class sizes are in the 50+ students per teacher.
  5. Schools forced into 4 day week to save on transportation and heating.
  6. Students have to supply their own textbooks.
  7. No extra curricular activities.
  8. No field trips.
  9. Teachers have to work more years before they can retire.
  10. With 50+ students in one class, the only manageable teaching strategy is lecture hall style direct instruction.
  11. Meanwhile, while class sizes are still at 50+ in the virtual school, each student's lessons are personalized and easy for the teacher to manage.
  12. With fewer costs associated with online education there is money for extras such as field trips and extra curricular activities.
So, what is the answer:
  1. Let virtual schools grow and become the new mainstream schools.
  2. Traditional public schools need to transform and become more like our alternative schools or area learning centers.
  3. We need to abandon the bell schedule and view our teachers not as people who teach classes but as expert resources within the organization.
  4. Student learning needs to be personalized. This can be done by assigning students an adviser who works with the student to develop a learning plan.
  5. Part of this plan could be taking core, specialty, or advanced classes online.
  6. Invest in face to face course offerings that are done better in person than online (art, theater, dance, music, physical education, industrial technology, etc.).
  7. Teachers who do not teach courses described in #6 split their time between advising and teaching online.
  8. Only probationary students (those who fall behind) need to show up every day. For the rest, school is a place they go for some classes or to use the school's resources.
  • By cutting the arts, physical education, industrial technology, and extra curricular programs we are eliminating from our brick and mortar schools what they do best! All other content areas are better served by virtual schools.
  • The survival of our traditional schools depends on a merger between the virtual school and the traditional school and an investment in the very programs everyone is cutting.
What needs to happen:
  • State Education policy has to be revised either to state that all students can be served by an ALC or traditional schools can offer classes as project-based so they are not held down by seat-time requirements that are outdated and tied to the antiquated notion that we need to prepare students to punch a clock.
  • Training in distance learning pedagogy needs to be required of all pre-service teachers and all teachers whose license is up for renewal.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Diagram of my PLN

Click Here for full screen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Digital Backpack & Digital Briefcase

I need your help. Last year I created a tool for our students and teachers to use called the "Digital Backpack." This was meant to serve three primary purposes:

1. educate students about how different search engines work;
2. Bring all of the different web apps and web 2.0 resources into one place;
3. Serve as a bridge for students and teachers from proprietary software to free and open source cloud computing.

This fall I created a similar tool that is more teacher oriented called the "Digital Briefcase. " I consider this project to be in beta since I am sure there are a ton of resources I have overlooked. Please send any suggestions or comments to: canderson@goodhue.k12.mn.us

Here is what I would like: I want to hear your ideas, and success stories involving technology integration. I have added a link next to each item in the Digital Backpack to a page on this wiki. You can edit this wiki yourself: the invitation key is 'Pappert.' In exchange I am giving you the code to put the Digital Backpack or Digital Briefcase on your website.


Carl Anderson

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Consequences of Digital Illiteracy

Disclaimer: This post is not about politics, nor is my intent that it be political. It is about technology and digital literacy (or digital fluency).

How is Technology Affecting This Election?

Like many people, I have been following this US presidential election and noticing how much technology has changed things this time around. The essential question that emerges for me from this spectacle is, "What are the consequences of digital illiteracy?"

When looking at the role of technology in this election it is easy to see some of the triumphs. First there were the YouTube debates last winter that at least gave the impression that regular everyday citizens could have a greater voice. Then there was the promise by Obama to announce his running mate first via text message. Even though his pick was leaked and reported first on the cable news the stunt gathered for the Obama camp an impressive bank of emails and cell phone numbers. It will be interesting to see how these are used as we draw closer to the election.

The third thing I have noticed was how much social networks have played a role in this election. Obama is the first US Presidential candidate to use one as his campaign website. While members of this social networking site can't do much more than donate money and get their friends to donate money it is the start of what could be a new model of how to tap into the power of the social web to aide in the running of a campaign.

What the Obama campaign has done with technology seems to contrast strongly with what I see coming from the McCain camp and I can't help but think their lack of fluency with digital media is going to hurt or has already hurt his campaign.

Back in July the New York Times published an interview with McCain where he said he was learning how to get on the internet himself and relied on those around him to help him do things on the web. Here is an excerpt from that article:

This brings us to what I find a striking contrast in how social networking has affected this campaign season. Since McCain has picked Sarah Palin as his running mate there has been a firestorm of controversial debate online about Palin's values and her ability to effectively mother her own children. Most of this debate stems from the circumstances surrounding her 17 year old daughter's pregnancy. However, things get worse when you look at the boyfriend's MySpace page or even the boyfriend's sister's Myspace page (which have both now become private but the damage I am afraid has already been done). Nevermind the whole teenage pregnancy issue or the vulgar self description that reportedly appeared on Levi Johnston's (the daughter's boyfriend) MySpace page. On Levi's sister's page there appeared this photo:

The girl sitting in the chair is Levi's sister and the baby she is holding is Trig. This image is most likely the image that set in motion the rumor online that Trig is not really Sarah Palin's son but is her Grandson. Whether that is true or not, the political damage has probably already been done. I can't help but think that if McCain were more technically literate he might have had the foresight to investigate his running mate's own web presence before tapping her as his #2. I guess in November we will see if his own inability to use the internet will hurt McCain or not. One thing I think is a pretty safe bet is if McCain-Palin win in November we probably won't see any love for MySpace or other social networking sites from that administration.

What skeletons do you have in your online closets? Couple suggestions:

1. Google yourself regularly (or sign up for Google Alerts and let them push new sites with your name, company name, or username as they are posted)

2. Watch what other people around you post

3. If your kids have an account on a site like MySpace or Facebook create one for yourself and insist that they make you one of their "friends." See what they are posting and follow what their friends are posting.

4. If you are hiring a new employee, do a search for their name.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

What is Technology?

A couple years ago, in one of my graduate school classes, I was assigned a paper where we were supposed to find and explain a metaphor for technology. In that paper I said that, "Technology is a Stick." I had in mind the opening scene to 2001 A Space Odyssey where the primitive man touches the monolith then begins using tools. My thinking at the time was that technology was a tool. However, I have been rethinking this lately and have come to a different conclusion.

Alan Kay says that technology is anything that was invented after you were born. This definition plays right into the same concept I held two years ago when I wrote that technology is a stick. Both of these definitions narrow the definition to objects (i.e. Computer, Cell Phone, Particle Collider, etc.). This definition is very practical and is easy to identify with. Shifting the onus of the term to the object removes individuals of necessary ownership of what truly lies within the term. It is empowering to say that you, your school, your town, your interest group, your professional organization, your country, etc. "has the technology." But does possessing tools constitute the possession of technology?

My dogs spend most of their time in my garage. In my garage I have numerous power tools, hand tools, an old computer, and a few machines (lawn mower, snow blower, etc.). According to the stick metaphor my dogs possess the technology to build pretty much anything. Do my dogs really possess this technology? I think not.

I have to admit that my summer indulgence were the TED Talks and taking my dogs on long evenings. Every week I would upload a new batch of talks to my iPod Nano and watch them on the go while exercising my dogs. Thus the way I have framed this idea. From these talks my mind has contracted quite a variety of memes and I think I finally have a definitive understanding of what technology really is.

When a foreign country says they possess the technology to build a nuclear weapon I don't think they mean that they have the materials. What they have is the knowledge and understanding needed to build one. And with this example I think I have solved the definition/metaphor problem. Technology is a meme, an idea, an understanding.

If technology is a meme then it can never really die or be destroyed. The only way we can loose our technology is if we forget how it works or how to use it. I think this notion helps explain a lot of behavior we see in schools. Try as we will, if a our students find a technology real useful they will find a way to use it even if it is banned or there are rules excluding its use. It also gets at the heart of a lot of tensions that can be observed between teachers and their students or one generation vs. another. It explains what is really missing from the digital native/digital immigrant depictions.

Technophobia is not the fear of new tools but rather the fear of not understanding. There is a nervousness that exists when those in a learning environment who are supposed to be subordinates are empowered with knowledge and understanding that those in authority positions lack. What it boils down to is technophobia is fear of loosing authority. It is not the tools that make the digital immigrant different from the digital native, it is the understanding of how they work and how they can be applied or the eagerness to learn new ways of understanding that makes this distinction. When we define technology as a tool we can say we have it but not know how it works or how to use it and we can easily just put it aside. If we see not the tool but the knowledge and understanding as the technology then for us to say we possess it means we must understand it. This is especially troubling in the field of education because educators are supposed to be inquisitive and celebrate knowledge, ideas, and understanding.

My job title at my full-time job is, "Technology Integration Curriculum Specialist." I am starting to see this as a bit of a misnomer given my new concept of what technology is. What I sense is expected of me by the educators I work with is that I am here to help them to bring new tools into their classroom and that is currently an accurate portrayal of what I do. However, am I integrating technology or am I integrating tools? If I were really to help teachers integrate technology my role should go beyond the tools and address understanding both of ideas and how they can be applied. This kind of integration transcends the tools and is much more about pedagogy than technical knowledge. That said, I still like playing around with new tools.

The following are some of the TED Talks that have influenced my thoughts recently on this matter:

Twitter Political Widget

This election season I have mostly been following news using Twitter Search. Unfortunately, our school district currently blocks twitter and we are still not sure it is appropriate for student use. However, I do see huge advantages to having the ability to view tweets as they flow in, especially regarding current events. Therefore, I created widget using Feedburner that pipes tweets related to the election to this rss reader widget:

Visit the Widget Gallery